Fassbender continues to be the new Daniel Day-Lewis in yet another poignant character study from Steve McQueen.
Shame is a movie that gives little away, but invites you to sort of observe and potentially invest in the characterization of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a sex-obsessed loner who may be quietly but violently experiencing a catharsis. Whether or not you interpret catharsis out of Brandon’s journey in this film is entirely left to you and honestly,Shame is the kind of experience where interpretations are all you’ve really got but there’s always enough to hang them on that the act of watching this film is constantly compelling.
What is to follow will largely be my interpretation of the film with some caveats given for stuff that is particularly interpretive. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan’s refusal to spell much of anything out might be off-putting for some but I’d encourage them to stick with it and pay attention to the little establishing details that tell us enough to haunt us.
Shame may not really be the type of movie that can be spoiled in the usual sense, but I’ll warn you all the same that I don’t plan to hold back about this one. It’s been out long enough anyway.
Get ready for a lot of naked Fassbender, ladies.
Brandon is sex-obsessed, yes, but not in a particularly unsettling way. I was sort of expecting him to be much kinkier than he winds up being. Instead of seeing a character who uses sexuality as a means for self-destruction, we’re actually watching something a bit more unusual and interesting: a character who uses sex as a means to ward off deeper demons.
Some have described Shame as an unsexy movie about sex. That’s interesting because it’s true that there’s a clinical detachment, coupled with disconcertingly toned music cues, to most of the film’s sex scenes. The very one that is erotic is the one where two very significant things are happening: Brandon is unable to “perform” in the end and the way the scene plays out is naturalistic, sexy, and sweet up to that point. At any rate, Brandon pursues sex everywhere he goes and habitually watches porn and jerks off in a workplace bathroom stall (and other places too). Early on we hear that his computer has been seized by IT due to viral problems or some such. Right from the get-go, we know enough about Brandon to assume that they’re going to find a lot of porn on there. Coupling that with his other behavior, it may be safe to interpret that Brandon wants to be noticed and potentially caught. This is the first hint that whatever is driving his obsession has something to do with Shame.
I think there would be a sort of attractive opportunity to conclude that Brandon seeks out sex because the act shames him and he likes to feel ashamed. I’d say that this is too simple. Brandon is ashamed, yes, of something else though. The wanton sexuality he displays is more about evading that shame and keeping it under control than it is about seeking it out. He only begins to behave more erratically toward the end of the film, getting into violent confrontations and increasingly reckless or out-of-character behavior to scratch his itch. There’s a sense that some fragile sense of control, some rhythm in his life, has been thrown out of whack.
Mulligan throws my rhythm out of whack too, if you know what I mean.
The source of this seems to be Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon’s free-spirited sister who shows up one day out of the blue. We’ve heard her leaving long, plaintive voicemails for him already by this point, but are not made aware of her relationship to him until after she is introduced. Significantly, Sissy is first seen by the audience naked in Brandon’s shower, doing little to cover herself up to him or to us. This is the opening salvo of a barrage of tense, sexually-charged scenes between them. The presence of that tension is the most important single element of the movie in terms of interpretation. Some are going to see it as one-sided (Brandon wants to fuck his sister, cue all errant behaviors) and perhaps unconsummated. Others are going to take other parts, including comments she makes during their frequent arguments (and the fact of their constantly adversarial relationship in itself) as well as her own obvious issues as evidence of some past, potentially incestuous, misadventure.
Whatever has happened between them, it’s Sissy’s impact on Brandon that unravels him. This isn’t direct or even stated outright, but rather a subtle change that starts with silent tears rolling down his cheeks as she sings a beautiful rendition of “New York, New York” that is sort of the theme song of the movie. A lot of the emotional tone of both the film itself and their relationship is contained in that song. The scene itself, like many, was shot in real-time or “single-take”.
To actually talk about the presence of so many single-take scenes and tracking shots for a moment… there are really some stunning ones in the film. The most memorable are Brandon’s pursuit of a woman he sees periodically on a subway train. The other is a side-scrolling set up on a shot of Brandon jogging to escape overhearing his sister fucking his boss. Other scenes, like the diner scene where Sissy sings, contain dialogue and wind up the most compelling in the film for the captured sense of improvisation and natural lulls. The actors are probably trying to remember their lines or control their timing intelligently but it comes off as, especially in Brandon’s date with coworker Marianne, like these are two people who aren’t 100% sure what to say to each other. It works because it feels true. Like so much of this movie.
Brandon hits rock bottom and we get an emotional rain scene. Win-win.
So as I was getting into above, my personal take is that there’s some kind of incest angle going on between Brandon and Sissy. It could be as simple as Brandon is struggling with an addiction he is ashamed of and that Sissy’s presence complicates his attempts to control and manage himself. That’s not an unsatisfying way to read the movie, but I think what makes Brandon feel shame is something in their shared past. I can’t get past the “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” line that Sissy says toward the end, especially since it’s the only time their past is addressed even if indirectly. Brandon’s shame drives him away from Sissy, but hers keeps her desperately clinging to some kind of relationship. I mean, it’s got to be bigger than just her being fucked up if she’s going to cut herself and ultimately attempt suicide (arguably a cry for help type thing, though). It just seems totally clear that there is something in their past that has fucked them both up. Another possibility is that they were both sexually abused (the quote supports that too) and now Brandon basically sees all women as potential conquests, even his sister, and thus stays away from her.
You can see how there’s a rich assortment of possibilities, most as deep and interesting as any other. All of this ambiguity enhances the ending as well. Brandon again encounters the married woman on the train and stares at her and her ring in a characteristic way we’ve already seen. What is he going to do next? Has he learned anything or changed?
I actually think he has. While I got the sense that he’s dumped his porn collection before we see him do it in the movie (as in this is a repeated ritual), I think it matters that he does it and we see him do it. I think it matters that he seems to like Marianne genuinely and that it is this that prevents him from fucking her the way he would just about anyone else. That the potentially cathartic incestuous scene I kept expecting to happen never did underlines that it is possible that, at least up to the end, Brandon is incapable of any kind of expression of affection, especially sexual, that comes from a place of emotional attachment or interest.
This bit where Brandon most firmly and finally rejects Sissy is incredibly, incredibly tense.
I sort of expected Brandon’s sexual derangement, which never manifested as such, to keep me divorced from him as a fully sympathetic character. Instead, I feel like he’s an incredibly sympathetic character and his life is very sad but also very relatable (in a less extreme form) for any man who has spent significant amounts of time on sex, especially the near-desperate pursuit of it. That describes many men, to one degree or another, and certainly many women as well. Thus, there’s a lot for people to take from this character and that makes Shame great. The stellar fucking performances don’t hurt either. Seriously, Fassbender and Mulligan are simply treasures. To say nothing of McQueen, one of the most interesting filmmakers out there.