Steve McQueen's NC-17 ‘Shame’ a layered portrayal of addiction

December 2, 2011

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(Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)
Carey Mulligan stars as the sister in Steve McQueen's erotic drama 'Shame.'

A major transformation happened in the mind of the movie goer over the past twenty years. Television, with its radical insistence on reductive and literal narrative forms, has altered the relationship between the movie viewer and the movie auteur—or the filmmaker. The role of the film artist used to be to ask questions. Today, audiences demand only answers.

No recent film exemplifies this radical shift more concretely than Steve McQueen's Shame. Many individuals who've seen the film leave it confused and feeling cheated. They’re shocked—surprising for an age in which pornography thrives on the internet—by the rather brief frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes involving the main character, Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, or his sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan.

Brandon is a successful New York office-worker in his 30s who moves between his minimalist high-rise apartment and his equally high-tech cubicle. But something else drives and dominates his life: sex. Getting ready for work, Brandon is pleasuring himself in the shower, trying to pick up a girl on the subway. His office computer is confiscated because it is infected with viruses. Out with his boss for drinks, he displays a cool reserve in picking up women. His life, we realize, consists of one-night stands.

All this changes when his younger sister, Sissy, suddenly turns up at Brandon's apartment—unannounced.  She’s the opposite of Brandon's cool—impulsive, garrulous, uncontrolled. She’s a lost soul.  As the film progresses, we realize she and Brandon share a painful history—a history we will never learn. She’s easily seduced, but her easily-stirred passions serve as a stark contrast to Brandon's sex addiction which has little to do with sex, and all to do with control.

A critical scene involving Brandon and Marianne, a co-worker, as they escape work at midday for sex at Brandon's apartment. When finished, Marianne reaches out in tenderness, trying to establish an emotional connection, only to be rebuked by Brandon. Brandon’s never-ending search for sex excludes any possibility of love.

Steve McQueen, the Turner-prize-winning artist, took on a very tough theme in his first film, "Hunger," which is about the hunger strike at Ireland's notorious Maze prison. Shame is not as extreme as "Hunger," yet its theme of addiction is layered and complex.

McQueen elicits this with a visual brilliance. The film is gray and architecturally edgy. McQueen uses this palette not just to underscore the alienation of the characters, but to reveal the broken emotional core which leads to obsession and addiction. Self-loathing underpins Brandon's sex-obsession. 

Shame contains a brilliant performance from Michael Fassbender; smartly, he portrays Brandon as almost invulnerable, protected by an outward shell. Conversely, this suggests the depth of the torment that goes on inside him. Carey Mulligan, in her role as Sissy, has grown as an actress since her role in "Education." Though her own vulnerability is much more in the open than that of her brother, McQueen never lets us in on the secret of the brother and sister's common past. We are only sure that there was one. Yet McQueen is smart enough as a filmmaker not to fall into the trap of empathizing with the characters—something which would allow the audience off the hook. The film would be about them. Instead, Shame is a film that is about us, and about our own addictive behaviors. Our addiction may not be sex, but the moral of Shame, if there had to be one, is that every personal obsession, no matter how petty, blocks the possibility of our being full individuals.

Ultimately, it’s the intelligence of this film that in refusing to give us simple answers, it poses penetrating questions in an original and a riveting way.


Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or WBEZ.