Shame

Shame ★★★★★

Steve McQueen's Shame is an unflinching examination of sexual addiction. Never before have I seen such a cold illustration of something usually viewed as loving or joyous. Very few films have ever handled this subject, perhaps because it's viewed as too intimate of a problem (or to some short-sighted people, not a problem at all) or too difficult to express. McQueen and especially star Fassbender completely blow that idea out of the water, creating a film, an experience, so cold and dark that it makes you never want to fuck someone again for fear that you'll be led down the same path. There's absolutely no eroticised sex here, every encounter Brandon has is devoid of emotion. Simply skin and bodies slapping together, hoping to rid themselves of the titular shame that permeates through their veins. Clenching and thrusting, fucking away the pain only to have it return instantly. Every encounter comes with hope that this will be the last time you feel that way, this will finally be the time that you don't feel that void inside you afterwards. But of course like any addiction, no dice. Brandon's sex addiction is portrayed as a scarier problem than something like alcoholism even, perhaps not in terms of the effects on the body, but having to live with it. In our culture, someone battling alcoholism is seen as brave and noble, battling through their demons. Yet say you're battling sex addiction, and it's viewed in a far different light. You're a pervert, a creep, you're sick. Brandon rides the subway in the opening scene, and looks across to catch a pretty girl's eye. Imagine seeing your addiction everywhere you go. Alcoholics or drug addicts don't have to see the bottle or the needle around every corner if they don't want to, but if your drug of choice is people, bodies, flesh, what choice do you have? As if someone is dangling your vice right in front of your nose. How do you escape?

The famous quote from the film is Brandon's sister Sissy stating "we're not bad people, we just come from a bad place." The brilliance of Brandon's character is that we don't know what that place is. We have nothing to go on regarding his upbringing, his background, apart from the fact that he grew up in Ireland and moved to New York as a teen. Is Sissy implying that their upbringing was so traumatising that it could have led to Brandon's addiction? (that she knows nothing about.) Were they beaten as children? Did a horrific event happen? We don't know, and it's a smart decision that it's never explored. Had Brandon's backstory been included, perhaps with a revelation of a traumatic event that directly led to his addiction in his adult life, then the audience has an easy escape route. We get to think "oh he's only like that because of a certain experience." McQueen refuses to give us that out, because that would imply that anyone suffering from sex addiction must have a bad upbringing, or be involved in a distressing, life-altering act. But that's not the case, Brandon may just be like us. Alone in a big city, feeling nameless, lonely, and overcome by an addiction that he knows no way of curing. And that's far scarier.

Sissy is of course the thing that derails Brandon's life. There's a very heavy incestuous tone permeating through their relationship. In fact the first time we meet Sissy is when Brandon barges in on her naked in the shower. From this first scene, where she doesn't seem that bothered about covering up for her brother, an incipient sexual overtone builds up around her. She's the overly endearing type, the kind of person always wanting affection and close contact. When Brandon allows her to stay at his apartment she jumps up on him and kisses him. When she surprises Brandon with a hug from behind we see a slight perturbed shiver run through him. Sissy's actions aren't overly different to any other sisters, but to Brandon they're a horrifying tease. He can't control his urges, he's used to anonymous sex within his apartment with absolutely no emotional connection. But Sissy's arrival creates a pervasive monster inside him, where he's terrified as to what he might do, what urges he might act on. When Sissy gets into his bed in the middle of the night due to being cold, he asks her to leave quietly before exploding at her to get out. When she accidentally catches him masturbating, he pins her down, bringing her to tears, as if he thinks the mistake was deliberate, that she's trying to test him. Any act of affection by her towards him, or towards his boss who she becomes involved with, makes Brandon uncomfortable. There's a brilliant shot where Sissy and Brandon's boss touch hands over the table with the camera in focus on the hands, before refocusing onto Brandon's almost horrified face in between them. When the two head back to Brandon's apartment to get intimate, Brandon can't even stand to hear the giggled laughs of his sister enjoying herself in a sexual manner and what those sounds connote in his mind, so he desperately heads off for a late night run. Though despite Brandon's own problems, his indignation towards Sissy's presence and his own inner thoughts, his actions of shutting her out lead to him being completely unable to see through the haze and to realise that Sissy herself has problems. That she herself might be as broken as him in a different way ("we just come from a bad place") and for once he's got to access his emotional core and help someone else before it's too late.

McQueen and DoP Sean Bobbitt paint New York as cold and grey as I've ever seen on screen. There are films in the seventies, like The Panic In Needle Park or Scorsese's work where New York is just as dank and unwelcoming, yet it always felt atmospheric and lived in. There were always people, always interactions and despite the gloom, there was a sense of community. Shame has no sense of community, Shame doesn't want atmosphere. Here, New York is the loneliest of places. Brandon runs down streets and seemingly comes across no physical people, just cars with blacked out windows, cabs with no one in them. The whole city if constantly wet, grey, matching Brandon's demeanour and clothing style. His body seems emaciated, like it's been drained of everything of colour, and the city seems to have been drained of all it's life. It's no surprise that when Brandon sees these women on the subway, these women that might be the cure or the continuation of his addiction, that they're all brightly dressed. Purple coats, red scarves, blonde hair. They stand out from the dank existence permeating through New York City, and for one moment, seem like the hope Brandon needs. It'll be different this time, he thinks. This is the one to disconnect me from my suffering, this is the one that will make me normal again.

Yet even after all this, everything Brandon goes through, everything he throws out, every sacrifice he has to make to desperately pull himself out of this hole and help his sister, does it mean anything? We'll never know, as the film cuts to black just as it began, with an emotionless stare and an air of uncertainty. As cold as it ever was.

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