Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
The subway rattles along the tracks. Seemingly at ease in the crowded carriage, Brandon Sullivan (played with brave abandon by Michael Fassbender) is a 21st century New York alpha male. Tall, handsome, virile and smart, he oozes financial and sexual success from every pore of his six-foot-whatever frame and every stitch of casually dishevelled designer-label clothing. But the film’s opening montage reveals that, like Bob Crane in Auto Focus, Brandon is plagued by an insatiable hunger for sex. Porn, prostitution, masturbation and stray fucks are all grist to his mill. Every one of these is the repressed returning into Brandon’s life but, like Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, he lacks the self-awareness to realise it and therefore ignores the message. On the subway a young married woman studies him. Brandon lets his rugged looks do the talking. She fidgets nervously, her thoughts of infidelity triggering disquieting feelings of violating societal covenants. She crosses her legs, closing the door, but can’t keep her eyes off Brandon. Sniffing sex, he follows her off the train but she loses him in the crowd. For once he’s struck out but it’s a fair bet that Brandon’s batting average is still intimidatingly high.
Shame ‘s first half revolves around Brandon’s friendship with his married boss David (James Badge Dale) and a succession of phone calls from an unknown woman that he refuses to answer. The work crew go out drinking after winning a deal and David makes an ass of himself hitting on a gorgeous woman called Elizabeth. But at the night’s end it is Brandon, having made no effort to woo her whatsoever, that Elizabeth offers a ride to—yes, that kind of ride. Part of Brandon’s problem is that sex is so readily available to him that he never stops to consider his obsession.
Brandon arrives home to find his emotionally troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) in his apartment. She’s in town for a singing gig and needs a bed. She was the woman on the phone and it’s clear why Brandon didn’t pick up: their family is completely dysfunctional. This dysfunction is not just at the heart of Shame; it is shame. Simpering Sissy has no self-worth, while Brandon has achieved success by walling off the gaping emotional hole at the core of his being—a hole that, if only he could see it, constantly cries out to him through sex. Yet the chain that binds them is inescapable.
Brandon takes David to see Sissy in a piano bar. In a mesmerising performance, Mulligan’s Sissy wears all her vulnerability on her sleeve as she sings. Later, as she sits with the two men, that same sleeve rides up to reveal some scars on her arms—a momentary beat that proves crucial at the film’s climax. David and Sissy wind up in Brandon’s bed while he’s left to stew in a funk, a seemingly odd response by someone so highly sexed until the mechanics of sexual repression are considered. It’s the same blind hypocrisy the ‘stranger sex’-loving Marie displayed in Romance when she berated her boyfriend for his provocative dancing in a nightclub. Steve McQueen’s camera captures Brandon’s growing internal pressure with a shot where he’s squeezed into the corner of the frame by a massive air conditioning unit. Sissy represents the repressed returning into Brandon’s life even more than his compulsive sexuality, and he resents it—and, by extension, her.
Brandon burns off his pent-up energy by going for a late-night run. Afterwards he rips the soiled sheets off his bed, as if he can erase the sex between David and Sissy. What he’s really trying to erase is the emotional pain that flares up inside him at Sissy’s behaviour. It’s the first clear indication that, for all his own promiscuity, Brandon is fundamentally disgusted by sex. This is the same attraction/repulsion dynamic often seen in Sexcatraz, from Frank Booth in Blue Velvet to Bud in The Brown Bunny to Humbert Humbert in Lolita. After freezing on the couch, Sissy crawls into Brandon’s bed in search of warmth. “Sissy, get out of my room.” No love, no empathy… only the same emotional wilderness inhabited by Bud, Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher and Jay and Claire in Intimacy.
As Shame moves into its second half Brandon’s friendship with David dissipates. Another co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), takes up the narrative slack. She corners Brandon at the office coffeemaker with a suggestive question about sugar; it’s pretty clear what kind she’s offering to stir into his coffee.
They meet for dinner. Brandon is late, unsure whether he can be bothered with the tedious formalities necessary to get Marianne to drop her knickers. Their small talk is stilted, hesitant. It’s the same immature emotional space as Bud and Daisy in the motel room in The Brown Bunny. Marianne is recently separated. Brandon admits he has never had a relationship that lasted more than four months. Two beautiful people, two economic successes, two emotional failures. Welcome to Sexcatraz. Brandon’s sexual hunger trumps his emotional apathy and he invites Marianne on another date.
Back in his apartment, Brandon relieves the pressure by masturbating in the shower—only for Sissy to blunder in. Once again a parapraxis ups the ante. Sissy peels away, laughing hysterically while Brandon is assailed by that same wave of shame-based feelings seen in earlier films: nausea, ridicule, humiliation, a sense of dirtiness, a desire to rewind his life and erase this shameful moment. Like myriad characters from John Lotter and Tom Nissen onwards, Brandon has a sudden urge to lash out at what he perceives as the source of these unpleasant feelings and picks a fight with his sister. Bad move. “You fucking weirdo,” she retaliates. The insult stings… deep down, Brandon knows it’s true. Sissy does too when she sees a web cam girl on Brandon’s laptop. Sissy stalks out, the truth finally revealed: like Bob Crane in Auto Focus, he’s a sex addict. Brandon hurls his entire stash of porn magazines, DVDs and even his laptop into the trash then sits hunched in his darkened apartment as he goes through the same cycle of behaviour that destroyed Crane. Self-loathing vies with lame promises of future self-control while the hunger for the next ‘hit’ of sex slowly but inexorably gnaws at his insides.
But Brandon has only dealt with symptoms and not with causes and thus fails to break the cycle. Porn and laptops are easily replaced; genuine psychological change is a much more challenging business, as Brandon is now painfully reminded. He takes Marianne to an apartment with an amazing view of the New York waterfront but needs a line of cocaine before he can face her. They kiss. They undress. They… no—Brandon can’t do it. The exact moment he manoeuvres Marianne into having sex he suddenly experiences an internal collapse, just as Bud accosted then rejected women during his trans-American odyssey in The Brown Bunny. Brandon’s shame kicks in with all the attendant feelings of nausea, self-hatred, disgust and get-me-out-of-here—or, in this case, get-her-out-of-here. “Brandon… you know it’s cool, it’s okay.” Marianne calls for a timeout but Brandon doesn’t want one. Marianne leaves, feeling rejected, bruised and mystified.
Brandon, however, knows exactly what he must do to quiet his raging feelings. He dials 1-800-WHORE and has sex against the window with its gorgeous waterfront view. It may seem senseless that Brandon can’t have sex with Marianne but can with a prostitute. According to the logic of Sexcataz—the logic of shame—it makes total sense. The prostitute doesn’t count. She’s just a whore; that’s her role in life. Brandon fucks her and discards her and—crucially—will never see her again, never be faced with her, never be reminded that he used her to expel what he experiences as disgusting urges. Marianne, conversely, he will see every day at work, and every time he sees her, her mere presence would remind him of their coupling, repeatedly triggering his shame and causing him to feel those unpleasant, nauseous feelings we all desperately try to avoid.
The ability to rationalise one’s behaviour into something defensible—while that same behaviour by others is indefensible—is another hallmark of shame
Back at home, Brandon finds Sissy still ensconced—the repressed refuses to budge. They share a tender moment but Brandon raises the issue of Sissy’s fling with his boss: “You can’t help yourself. It’s disgusting.” The ability to rationalise one’s behaviour into something defensible—while that same behaviour by others is indefensible—is another hallmark of shame. And defend he now needs to do, as Sissy goes on the offensive after being downtrodden once too often. “Don’t talk to me about sex, Brandon, not from you.” Unable to engage emotionally with Sissy—to accept the repressed returning into his life—Brandon has no recourse but to leave. “Great. Then you’ll come back and we’ll have the same conversation all over again.” They both continually trigger each other’s shame; but while Sissy is looking for resolution Brandon is stuck in denial and this time he draws a line: “No. You’ll move out.” They both know what that means.
An ominous synth introduces the film’s final reel. Like Boys Don’t Cry, Shame shifts from a linear to non-linear structure to portray an increasingly fractured character as Brandon goes on an all-night sex bender. First up is a gaming hall, where Brandon talks dirty to a woman at the bar. The woman’s boyfriend lays into Brandon, splitting his cheek. Like others before him—Caroline in The Comfort of Strangers, Dorothy in Blue Velvet, Marie in Romance—Brandon craves punishment and degradation, to plunge so far into sex that he never comes out. Next he visits an underground gay sex club, where a man fellates him. Leaving the club, Brandon finds a message from Sissy begging him to go home. “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” Sissy nails it but Brandon can’t accept the insight. The line of least resistance leads to a pair of hookers.
In the searing heat of a threesome, shot largely out of focus by Steve McQueen’s squirming camera, Brandon’s true feelings are fully revealed. The body parts of the three participants mingle indiscriminately as sex act blurs into sex act. But what many men might regard as the ultimate fantasy turns into something else: a revelation of Brandon’s ultimate misery.
Brandon’s face contorts with primal pain as he wordlessly swaps one woman for another, one body for another and one orifice for another. His eyes stare into the abyss of sexual purgatory. That which he has been pursuing the most is that which pains him the most. That same push-pull cycle of sexual misery seen throughout Sexcatraz robs Brandon’s life of all joy. Brandon stares emptily from deeply sunken sockets as he exhausts himself of all desire. But there is no end to the cycle that Brandon finds himself in. He could screw every woman in New York and nothing would change.
Somewhere between the hookers’ apartment and the New York dawn Sissy’s message tugs at Brandon’s mind. The subway rattles to a halt at 28th Street. Brandon stands at the door, which refuses to open. He finally emerges onto the street and calls Sissy. He can’t get through. Panic suddenly grips him. Brandon runs the last blocks home. Every moment turns to quicksand. Sissy’s sleeve, which rode up after her gig, comes to mind: yes, she self-harms. Seriously. He finds her in the bathroom, smothered in blood. Brandon cradles Sissy, wanting her at long last, accepting her plea for healing.
There are signs of catharsis in the film’s denouement. Sissy wakes in hospital with Brandon at her side. He breaks down and cries on a wharf. Finally he rides the subway, and there she is, the woman from the opening scene. This time her smile suggests she won’t give him the slip. Brandon gazes thoughtfully at her for a moment before the screen cuts to black. Brandon may or may not bed the woman on the subway; like The Brown Bunny it’s left to the viewer to decide. Ultimately, it’s immaterial; the real question is whether he has recognised that the events occurring in his everyday life are constantly showing him the damaged parts of his own psyche. Another film that effectively demonstrates the return of the repressed—and doesn’t leave the viewer hanging—is Swimming Pool, an official selection for the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.