Some Thoughts on SHAME

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(This piece contains “spoilers.”)

The critical response to SHAME has been slightly baffling to me. The movie has a brave performance by Michael Fassbender and a couple of scenes that feel remarkably true (Brandon’s attempt at a real date is the movie’s most insightful moment), but the film also displays a clumsy misunderstanding of its subject that can’t be ignored.  That particular discussion seems to have been disregarded in exchange for an embarrassingly wide pre-occupation with Fassbender’s sexiness — a weird thing to walk away from SHAME talking about, to be sure. It’s the equivalent of fixating on Jennifer Connelly’s degrading dildo scene in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM over its harrowing themes of addiction. Yeah, it’s sexual, but it’s not supposed to be sexy, guys.

SHAME hit its first truly sour note with me during a lingering shot of Brandon viewing his distorted reflection on the side of a bus. The shot is a cliched visual shorthand that says “On the inside, this person is not who they appear to be.” It’s the kind of weak somebody-already-thought-of-that trick that most filmmakers leave behind at film school. But, it’s in here, and it sucks — not enough to ruin the movie, but enough to act as a warning for what’s to come.

After an extended orgy (shot with the inappropriately titillating gusto of an episode of HBO’s REAL SEX), Brandon ends up trolling for sex at a gay club (shot like a horror film). The implications are ambiguous; we don’t know if this is something Brandon has done before or not. It shouldn’t really matter, since all of Brandon’s sex is an empty experience, sexual orientation is irrelevant, but in director Steve McQueen’s eyes this homosexual act is the end-all-be-all of sexual lows. It’s the scariest thing a (homophobic) straight male can think of — finding themselves so horny that they might let another dude touch them. Just conceptually, it’s an offensive way to portray a sex addict’s low point.

McQueen, who also wrote SHAME, flounders with this. It’s not dramatic enough to get Brandon to rock bottom, and he knows it’s not enough, but McQueen doesn’t understand why. So, he has Brandon come home after some anonymous gay sex to discover that his sister has attempted suicide in his own apartment. Besides the hilariously puritanical message (“While you were out getting your rocks off, your sister almost DIED!”), Brandon’s rock bottom is now his sister’s rock bottom. Brandon hits no rock bottom of his own, but the film would have you believe that this is it.

The attempted suicide has some shock value, but it’s also something that student filmmakers have a preoccupation with, because it’s an easy cinematic go-to to show that a personal situation is in dire shape. McQueen makes the mistake of tying Brandon to this moment as if it somehow would make him less compulsive and horny, and suddenly ready to love and commit. Though his sister is alive, he has a wailing catharsis on a pier, spurred on partly because he’d been incredibly crappy to her and partly because he was having empty sex while she bled out.

I’m still not sure how her personal rock bottom translates into being his rock bottom. Her suicide is something that could’ve happened if Brandon were attending church or out grocery shopping; it has nothing to do with his addiction to sex. Her lowest point can’t be his lowest point, because it’s happening only to her, and it’s happening to her in a way that he doesn’t have any empathy for. Do I believe that Brandon would be sad that his sister almost died? Yes. Do I believe this event is a turning point in his life? Not one bit.

A more satisfying ending would’ve taken more work from McQueen, getting to Brandon’s emotionally darkest place and exposing him in such a wholly naked, vulnerable way that he has no choice but to change. Instead SHAME goes easy, with a finale that makes the whole film inauthentic and immature. It’s a damned SHAME.

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9 Comments

  1. I don’t feel that Cissy’s attempted suicide is Brandon’s rock bottom, and i don’t think the film clearly defines any one moment as his bottom. I think he will forever associate his addiction with her suicide attempt, and it’s that sort of negative association (like people who are afraid of all dogs because one bit them as a child) that may influence his life. Do I think at film’s end that he’s changed or “better”? No. Not at all. I think he gains a certain level of awareness, but awareness and taking action are two separate things.

    I do, however, think it’s an interesting parallel — that of Brandon metaphorically bleeding out as he ejaculates during the threesome (see: cry-gasm face) while his sister literally bleeds out. The thing that strikes me most in the film is the mirrored image between the siblings. Cissy is all emotion and need, while Brandon is all physical and want.

    As far as the gay club scene, I don’t find it egregious or offensive, nor do I think it smacks of McQueen endorsing some sort of shady homophobic slant. When a sex addiction goes far enough, it doesn’t matter to the addict who they receive the sex from or how. All that matters is the act itself, constantly pushing boundaries, and engaging in risky behaviors. Hell, for that matter, any and all emotionally damaged/addicted personalities engage in risky/self-destructive behaviors. Why is this act risky? It’s not because it’s with a man. It’s because he just waltzes into a grimy club and engages in a sex act with a stranger. To him it’s another boundary he’s crossed because he is a straight-identified man and he’s allowing himself to engage with another man. Again, I don’t think McQueen is endorsing homophobia. Some people identify as straight, some as bi-sexual, some as gay. And those people know who they want to have sex with and how. If Brandon has an aversion to having sexual contact with a man, this doesn’t make him homophobic. He’d be homophobic if he had an aversion to interacting with a gay man or any man on a level that he felt to be too personal.

    I was more horrified by the transvestite aversion in Hangover 2, which read to me like blatant homophobia mined for a cheap laugh.

    Back to the pushing of boundaries — I personally felt that Brandon had some level of desire to have sex with his sister, but felt that it was too depraved, even for him. I felt that there was definite emotional confusion; he craves more and more risk and depravity, but he confuses that attraction (which comes with all of his emotional baggage that he medicates via the addiction) with the emotional connection to Cissy.

    And one last thing: I didn’t feel like the sex scenes were filmed in a titillating manner, nor did I walk away thinking, “Oh gosh, I really want to screw Fassbender now!” I mean, I already found him attractive pre–SHAME, and when I put him on my sexiest bad boys of 2011 list for ReelVixen, the attraction, for me, is that he is a damaged, broken male (and yes, he’s easy on the eyes). I wasn’t turned on by the sex in the film; quite the opposite. I feel as though the sex scenes were handled clinically, and especially after the final three-way scene, I had a conversation with the fella I watched it with and we were sort of repulsed by the idea of sex. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that depicted such pornographic sex in such a harsh, sad way. SHAME made sex something harrowing and depressing, which is an accomplishment because I feel it successfully creates empathy for Brandon.

    • ” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that depicted such pornographic sex in such a harsh, sad way”. The fact that it crossed the line into pornography .Show’s lack of creativity on mcqueen’s part .Such a cheap way to handle the situation coming from addict myself .

      I know all about “addiction” which is separate from the object of the addiction .I think if the brandon character didn’t mirror a porn star you would get the real repulsiveness .The threesome and the cry-gasm was some of the worst forced acting i’ve seen to date.Why these indie film directors feel that have to turn there actors into porn stars .To prove a point is beyond me,in the end it doesn’t contribute to the acting.It also didn’t make the movie any better ,just aimless filler .

      the whole implication of incest between brandon and his sister would of been interesting twist.It would of filled in just about every gap this movie had .Maybe to you the sex scenes weren’t titillating ,just think about it for a second .Attractive people with movie star good looks .Perfect model like bodies is in essence porn.This is why Mcqueen is such a con artist he tricks you into believing your watching artistic expressiveness .When actually its just another cheap thrill kind of like the hookers brandon gets involved with .

      I felt there was no empathy for brandon he seemed more or less to OCD .Then sexual addiction ,what makes him different from any guy in the world .All guys think like this guy/act like this guy what set’s brandon apart from them.Ask yourself this question steve mcqueen didn’t and if he did he failed to answer it .
      Throwing the gay low scene in here was also just filler it doesn’t show a rock bottom.What would of made for a better rock bottom as well as illustrating .The warped mind of and addict is showing michael fassbender fantasizing about his sister .Or showing him coming on to her.After all addicts see the world upside down not leaning slightly to one side .

  2. All valid points, Britt. Love talks like this — where there’s no “right” answer, just sharp opinions.

    BUT…

    I don’t think McQueen’s “endorsing homophobia.” I think it’s casual homophobia that’s a result of a writer not really thinking deeper about what he’s doing. To clarify, I don’t think McQueen hates gays. I do think McQueen inadvertently made something highly suspect, at least from my POV.

  3. Yeah, but now we’re getting into the semantics of harmful thoughts without malicious intent. If there was no malicious intent, how can there be a harmful action? At this point it would seem you are creating an issue that isn’t there by projecting your emotions onto the film, and the scene in particular.

    And I do understand how that conclusion could be reached, but I find it hard to believe that a writer so clumsily and inadvertently created a hateful issue, given the time we live in and current awareness.

  4. I briefly considered the homophobic implications as I watched it, but I ultimately decided that this probably WAS something he’s done before; in this movie, it just so happens to play out towards the end, so McQueen seemingly positioned that as his “darkest moment” or whatnot, so I can definitely see how it can be taken that way.

    The stuff between Cissy and Brandon is interesting; I never got the sense that their big “secret” was all that hidden, and, to me, her suicide does resonate as his rock bottom because it finally forces him to face his SHAME. I’m no expert on this sort of psychoanalysis stuff, but it seems to me that the worst thing for an addict is trying to look inward and figure out just why they’re addicted, and I think that’s what Cissy represents–she’s an infuriating figure for him because she makes him ponder what he’s done. And yes, I think McQueen paints it in huge, broad strokes that’s right on the nose, but it mostly works pretty well.

    I do have to agree that anyone coming away talking about the sexuality of this movie missed the point–what struck me about it was how cold, frigid, and passionless it was, right down to the steel grey visual aesthetic.

  5. I couldn’t agree more. First I got the impression that he had those homosexual encounters before so it didn’t feel like a new low at all (except, as you say, in the way it was shot once he enters the ‘club’).

    I was also hoping (like really hoping) that when Brandon arrived home, his sister was going to be completely fine because I was dreading the horribly predictable and cliche suicide attempt (successful of not). And, if she had been fine and then he went and broke down, that would be more of a psychological revelation for him, than merely crying because his sister almost died while he was busy getting a blowie.

    The second half really falls apart for me and I was very disappointed. Hunger is one of my favourites of the last decade and I was sad the second I knew this would not even enter the discussion when it came to my top ten of the year.

  6. Finally someone i can relate to ,for the longest time i felt like i was the only one who got the same dull impression from this movie.I felt the same way it was like mcqueen started .To make a movie on sex addiction and just made a movie about sex .Michael fassbender helped sell the idea of sex in this movie .If steve mcqueen was so lazy why not just .Turn this into a 10 minute P.S.A On addiction including sex addiction .It would of helped make a lot more sense of this movie and what was going on.

    Alot of what was in this movie just seemed to be not needed after all isn’t Art about .Trimming away the fat to reveal the simple truth this movie has pretentiousness smeared all over it .Why didn’t Mc queen look to make this a hollywood movie or a lifetime movie .
    The only part of this movie that showed promise was when brandon was making and attempt. At getting involved with his co worker then it just got disappointing when he took her to the hotel.The way the scene was set up was just pointless.

    Once again in plain sight was Mc queen’s lack of competent’s the scene started out going somewhere.Then went to know where and became boring .When all else fails throw him some graphic skin slapping Voyeuristic sex scene .Of brando railing some older prostitute .It’s mind blogging the rave reviews people give this movie
    even the 3 some .

    According to the people on imdb it was like michael fassbender was turning water into wine .the Expression on his face as he’s climaxing looked like he was trying to hold in a built up fart .That scene is what did it for me same with the Gay scene .It was as if mcqueen was displaying the brandon character as if .He were a sexual athlete the man truly doesn’t know .Or understand addiction including sexual addiction .

    You figure he would of learned about doing his research ,The biggest shame .Is the fact that he duped these good actor’s into doing such a lousy picture.I’m michael fassbender and carey muligan did their homework .Mc queen should of shown the same dedication to telling this story correctly .

    Also i read that he wrote this as well another shame to add on to the other’s .Among others the shame of suckering people into thinking this was good movie with a good story .Fooling them into believing the hype .Shame on you Mr. Mc queen Shame ,shame

  7. Not to dredge up an old post, but your take is way off. First, the shot on the side of the bus is not supposed to indicate that Brandon is not who he appears to be. The audience is given a rather unbiased take on who Brandon is throughout the film. Hell, it’s rather raw and direct.

    Second, the point of the movie is not Brandon’s sex addiction. Saying the movie is about sex addiction is like saying that Taxi Driver is about marksmanship. The focus of the film is Brandon’s loneliness and emotional introversion, as contrasted with Sissy’s bohemianism and emotional clinginess.

    Third, the scene in the gay club is not offensive. First of all, it’s not “shot like a horror movie.” It’s shot like he’s inside a dingy NYC gay sex club. The movie agrees with you that it’s an empty experience and doesn’t matter, hence why Brandon seems to be getting sexual satisfaction from it. The entire POINT of the scene was to show that Brandon was so desperate to feel something that any sex, even a blow job from a random gay dude, was virtually the same to him. It’s a low point from the audience’s perspective, but for him, it’s just another moment, to be followed by hiring two call girls. It gets a reaction from the audience precisely because the idea of having sex with a gender to which you are not attracted IS rather repellent to most people, which is why it’s an effective scene – Brandon DOESN’T care, and is even able to get into it. McQueen is playing on the audience’s expectations.

    As for Sissy’s attempted suicide – it’s not SUPPOSED to be rock bottom for Brandon. You’re trying to fit a traditional arc into a movie that spits in the face of Hollywood writing. The whole movie shows Brandon pushing people out of his life and clinging to his emotions like a damn facehugger. The point of the suicide attempt is to show that, when he lets go of his inhibitions, he IS capable of feeling, IS capable of being vulnerable and caring deeply about another person. The reason the suicide attempt is brilliant is because it’s not used to give much context re: Sissy’s character, for it’s utterly expected from a person with her psychological profile, but to develop something of Brandon’s character. It is the subversion of a potential cliche by virtue of its context and function within the narrative. It’s why the fact that Brandon cries after he leaves the hospital is so cathartic – after 90 straight minutes of a very lonely, austere existence, there is finally a release. Whether anything comes of that is left to the audience’s imagination, and that fact is what makes McQueen’s ending so very perfect. The movie is one of the best of the young millennium, and even if you don’t agree, your post shows a fundamental misunderstanding of it.


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