What are we to make of Shame? Certainly the title suggests that sex-fiend Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) feels some sort of regret for his actions. And perhaps we are also meant to read the title into his sister’s story as well. Carey Mulligan plays Sissy, a suicidal chanteuse, and there is a frisson of incest hinted at in their relationship. When she makes loud congress with his boss, on his bed, he is as furious as if betrayed by a lover.
The strong whiff of Irish Catholic guilt that hangs over the film like a fog off the Liffey also leads me to speculate that it might not be incest that brings them together, but some kind sexual abuse that occurred when they were children, at the hands of a parent or priest. We are never told why they left Ireland, or why they both have difficulty forming healthy, stable relationships. Not that writer/director Steve McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan want to tell us. As with McQueen’s previous collaboration with Michael Fassbender, Hunger, the long takes and elliptical storytelling are guaranteed to either hypnotize or infuriate the viewer.
This technique will not be new to art house film goers, who have hopefully experienced such masters of the form as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who called this method of long, deliberate takes “cloud patch editing” (if I remember correctly from my Contemporary Chinese Cinema class). McQueen uses it to defuse a potentially lurid subject — sex addiction — and make it about as unsexy as I can imagine it. Brandon is not a man experimenting with different forms of sexuality as a means of personal growth. He’s is a man driven by compulsion. As far as I’m concerned this film is lucky to have gotten an NC-17 rating — it makes it seem sexier in the marketing than it is.
Supposedly McQueen and Morgan based the story on real sex addicts they met in New York City. I wonder how accurate it is, because when I lived in New York City, I never felt the Village Voice’s back pages reflected the city in microcosm. Are we really to believe that Brandon could rise so high on the corporate ladder when he spends every spare moment tugging one out in the Men’s room?
The one time Brandon refuses sex is when he’s made a real connection with a co-worker (a charming Nicole Beharie). That scene is when I felt the most shame on his behalf, or perhaps rather sympathy on her behalf. What conception of “shame” are we meant to be focusing upon, if any? Perhaps the filmmakers wished to induce shame in the audience — luring us in with promises of sex then giving us a story of two psychologically-damaged people. Or perhaps the filmmakers are condemning their own characters, asserting the moral high ground with a title alone. The movie does have a happy ending (of sorts) so it could be the opposite. Are the filmmakers saying that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our sexual appetites, whatever form they take?
Shame doesn’t provide easy answers. It has some fine, raw performances and it invites us to ponder the meaning of “shame” in our present society. I have a feeling it will act as a mirror and reflect mostly what audiences bring to it, which is a much as saying it has little reason to exist beyond the aesthetic experience of its own high-caliber acting, visual composition and editing. But then again, I could make the same statement about most festival-circuit, awards-bait films.