Directed by Steve McQueen (no, not the dead actor), Shame is a film that could only have been conceived of in the last few years. Its subject is human intimacy, or rather the lack thereof in an age of ever-expanding technological immediacy. Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, is a sex addict living in New York; from waking to sleeping, his days revolve around patterns of behaviour – like masturbating in the toilets at work – that relieve his cravings, keeping the wolf from the door so that he appears functional, at least at first glance. When his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives, emotional and in need of help, at his manicured apartment, Brandon’s narcissistic world begins to rip at the seams.
While Shame is indisputably sexually explicit, it is chiefly the story of an addict. The bulk of the film’s sexual acts are short and frantic: he’s just getting his fix, and we actually see very little. In fact, there is really only one extended sequence of sexual encounters. When things are seriously falling apart for Brandon, he goes on a sex-bender and all but overdoses. But this is his hitting rock bottom; these explicit encounters are desperate and sad.
What makes Shame especially interesting and, above all, an extremely contemporary film is the plethora of immediate avenues that Brandon has at his fingertips, so to speak, to satisfy his nihilism. He has women who ‘know exactly what [he] likes’ and regularly perform for him on the internet, and prostitutes he can call on at any given moment. Most of all though, as Brandon’s boss, David (James Badge Dale), tells him after his computer is serviced: ‘Your hard-drive is dirty!’ Brandon deflects the accusation, but, as David says, ‘It takes a really sick fuck to spend all day on that shit’. Because this is the only era in which it has even been possible to ‘spend all day on’ it in front of a computer screen, Brandon’s sex addiction is a contemporary technological one too.
Indeed, Shame can be read as highly critical of the ways in which the speed of the internet and the seamlessness of webcams create illusory connections between people who remain emotionally isolated. Watching sex online appears to be ‘the real thing’ – real people responding to the specific desires of the person on the other end of the camera. But, just as these technological connections improve, proliferating mediated forms of sex, actual human connections falter – hence Brandon’s narcissistic addiction.
Sissy enters Brandon’s life as a mirror, showing up how deeply trapped he is within himself and how far removed he has become from genuine human bonds. And though she is messed up too, her psychological instability manifests in craving intimacy and approval from others. Brandon spits at Sissy’s needing to connect with him, exposing his failings: ‘You’re a dependency, you’re a parasite’.
It is to McQueen’s credit – as co-writer and director – that the origins of Sissy and Brandon’s mutual discontent and his sexual dependencies are never clearly defined. As Sissy says in a desperate voicemail message to Brandon: ‘We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.’ Geographically, that ‘bad place’ is Ireland: figuratively though, it has something to do with the unexplained absence of their parents. It seems likely that Brandon and Sissy have inherited shame – through trauma – from their parents, and they continue to act this out in the present.
Shame has already won several major awards for best film, as well as best actor awards for Fassbender and best supporting actress for Mulligan. Refreshingly, these awards are deserved. This is a stunningly performed and crafted film: every element of style and sound works together to subtly construct Brandon’s world as a deck of expensive cards teetering on the edge of collapse. And, as with McQueen’s previous film Hunger, Shame is a uniquely visceral and often disquieting cinematic experience. I loved it.
Kate Harper studied Cinema at the University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer. She is also a Killings Film and TV columnist.