Anonymity. Choice. Isolation.Compulsion. Lust. Ego? What drives this man? Healthy, handsome, charismatic, financially secure. On the outside he is charming, well put together, smartly dressed. His living space is a typically modern, functional apartment – sharp white, pale blues and the occasional blacks; clean, moderately stylish and yet without character. So what sets him apart from other young men striving and dwelling in a modern cityscape? The answer is never fully revealed in Steve Mc Queens second film Shame and this ambiguity is one of its key strengths. It hints at a deeper psychological disturbance within the character of Brandon (Michael Fassbender) but the film leaves our questions unanswered instead leaving us to observe the interactions between Brandon and Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his troubled sister and draw our own conclusions.
Both characters could very easily have come as ciphers in the wrong hands, a potentially facile study of opposing personalities. He is a coiled model of modern masculine self possessiveness, she is chaotic, dependent, needy and still full of childish whim. Despite the deliberate lack of backstory both Fassbender and Mulligan breathe full, emotional life into these two lost souls and create vivid, realistic portraits and have a compelling often uncomfortable chemistry in their scenes together.
Let me just say I found Shame difficult to watch at times and I find it quite difficult to write about. On one level its is a study of addiction, in this case the drug of choice being sex. But on another, it is a powerful study of a damaged male psyche and specifically that of a man adrift, attempting to maintain his façade in an often alienating and harsh environment. Brandon’s reliance on technology and convenience to saté his desires is all too convincing and yes, sadly relatable I have to admit but I’m sure this will resonate for a lot of men of my and recent generations.
As the film progresses, Brandons inability to show real affection or connect with others emotionally seems more likely to be psychologically tied in with his vague past and he is on a quest to destroy that part of himself. Mc Queen suggests his dissolution by showing his face out of focus on several occasions throughout. In cruder terms I suppose men use sex to define themselves and their sense of masculine identity, authority and self-confidence but in Shame, Brandon uses sex not to compete with other men or display his alpha male powers of attraction but to lose himself completely and achieve his goal, his temporary surrender and death through orgasm.
No delight or pleasure in his conquests who range from businesswomen to prostitutes, no bragging to his amiably sleazy boss. He keeps himself locked tight. No friends, no family until Sissy enters the picture and breaks down his defenses, his privacy diminished. She is clearly a threat to his way of life, his routine. Her weaknesses and vulnerabilities which he despises are his own and it seems that constant sexual gratification have become the conduit for his denial and self loathing.
To reveal anymore would be to reveal too much about myself . Mc Queens film is perhaps not a masterpiece as it is often too stylistically wilful or emphatic in it’s use of Harry Escotts’ melancholic orchestral score pushing the tragic aspects of Brandon’s affliction onto the audience rather than letting us assume our own position of judgement but its a powerful artistic achievement; a visually rigorous yet startlingly frank and intimate cinematic depiction of human frailty and the mystery of connection.