Steve McQueen’s Shame begins in a bed. Brandon’s bed. And in some way the film never leaves it. At least the viewer’s mind never travels far from it. We spy Brandon from above as he lies awake, lifelessly staring at the ceiling in early morning light. His eyes are the color of his soft blue sheets and are equal parts serene and troubled. His skin is milky and exposed. It is this image that remains in the mind’s eye as the film progresses. It is the image of a man imprisoned by the eroticism of his own mind, by an itch that cannot be scratched, by the quiet desperation that comes from struggling for a satisfaction that never comes.
Almost at once, the score brings us into the gentle torment of Brandon’s psyche. It is a sound that could be allocated to a ticking clock alongside beautiful violins. A watch maybe, a metronome? But it is more than that. It is a sound that is filled with not only urgency, but desire, panic stricken and yet hauntingly beautiful. A dance between pleasure and intense need that brings about degradation. The sound carries Brandon from his bed and into his day. We follow him onto the subway where his silent infatuation with the young woman sitting across from him on the train is felt in the bones of the watcher. She rises to exit the train and as she grips the pole to steady herself for the stop we are drawn to a glimmering wedding ring on her hand but this does not bar Brandon from rising to stand behind her, the anticipation mounting as he silently grips the pole, prepared to follow her anywhere. The desire between these two people is told with such subtlety and is felt so intently that one could swear it was their own. The same level of cost and disappointment is felt when Brandon loses her in the crowded subway station moments later.
McQueen shows us this interaction on the subway almost immediately, before working back to the events of the previous evening. He allows us to become enthralled by thrill and passion before confronting us with the compilation of sex acts that make up Brandon’s day, which when built on top of one another, begin to change our image of him. Perhaps McQueen does this to trick the mind into the allure and the mysterious beauty of the concept of sex with a stranger before giving us the information that could cause us to pass judgement. We are captivated by the scene on the subway. It is sexy, alluring, magnetic even. It sort of slyly aligns us with Brandon. There is no time to resist, to pull back and distance ourselves from Brandon or form opinions about his behavior because we haven’t learned the downside yet.
When the echoing sounds of lovemaking enter the score, we assume these could be sounds from the woman on the subway or perhaps we have jumped forward in time or even backward. Maybe these people actually know one another. It is moments later that the sound aligns with the image of Brandon collapsing on his bed having just finished having sex with a different woman, a woman we learn in a shot placed out of sequence is a prostitute from the previous evening. The order in which McQueen chooses to tell this story makes all the difference in the way we receive it. As David Mamet has mentioned in his book On Directing Film, a film should feel as if it could be a dream or a story someone is telling. The filmmaker assembles a progression of images that tell the story in the most uninflected way possible. He explains, “The images in a dream are vastly varied and magnificently interesting. And most of them are uninflected. It is their juxtaposition that gives the dream its strength.” Mamet later goes on to say that, “All film is, finally, a ‘dream sequence’.” Which is exactly what Shame is. A dream. Haunting and mysterious and jarring. We aren’t sure which ends tie up where. We are in a heightened state, feeling our way down a darkened hallway.
By the time we come to understand Brandon’s sexual compulsion, we have already shared a moment with him, inside him, we have become him before having time to stop it. It’s too late. We are in his head. That ticking clock, or metronome, or watch, or by this time the sound of skin slapping skin is echoing in our brains the way it does for Brandon and we can’t turn back. Allured by beauty and then caught by stigma. This is shame.
In an article for the LA times McQueen said he would have waited years to make this film with Michael Fassbender who plays Brandon. He said, "Michael can reflect us, we see ourselves in him. He is who we are. We put our face on his face. He is a mirror." (1) And it seems that is exactly what he intended for Shame. For the viewer to become Brandon. To see and feel the world of addiction, not just as an outsider with judgments, but from an insiders perspective of feeling. Through eloquent filmmaking, McQueen trips us into the emotional life of Brandon before we have the wherewithal to decline. He moves in and out of sequence, popping between the most mundane activities to the most concentrated; we see Brandon urinating while listening to a message from a woman, who we have not yet learned is his sister. The scene’s position in the films lineup is what gives it its weight. This is the first time words are spoken in the film. Our senses are on high alert from the language drought of the first three minutes of the film. Our palates are cleansed and ready to receive and decipher the many things this piece of dialogue could mean given the context of Brandon having sex with a prostitute the evening before and the exchange on the subway. “Hey, it’s me. Pick up,” says the voice on the answering machine, and our minds are off and running.
McQueen uses sound and dialogue sparingly and deliberately. In an article for Cineaste, “The Human Body as a Political Weapon,” regarding his 2008 film Hunger which follows Bobby Sands, the 27 year old Irish Republican Army prisoner who lead a hunger strike in 1981, McQueen spoke of his intention to use a minimalist score, stating that, “Sound in itself is music.” (24) He does not believe in using music that will superimpose emotion. He believes rather in allowing for ambient noise. His position on dialogue is similar. He uses it not to fill in back story but to tell the story at hand. For Hunger, he says, “I wanted to have a movie where more or less the first forty minutes is in silence, so the viewers’ other senses would come to the fore.” (24) McQueen is a master at illuminating one sense at a time, narrowing in on a specific tool that will best tell the story in that particular moment. He does this in his use of wide angle shots as well. He uses them so that there is always more than one thing happening in a frame so that a visual dialogue can occur between people and objects even while nothing is being spoken. In the scene in which Sissy and Brandon share a heated conversation on Brandon’s couch, the camera never cuts away. It encompasses both Brandon and Sissy in profile with black and white cartoons playing on the TV between them in the background, a careful placement of detail that alludes to a distant and troubled shared childhood.
Many have attempted films about addiction and though they can be heart wrenching, there is often a barrier of separation that can come for people who haven’t experienced the benefits of drugs and therefore can’t fully connect to the concept of needing them so badly. These films hold the viewer at a distance. Shame does something different in that most any human can connect to the nature of a sexual urge, they have tasted that drug and therefore the slide into an addiction that is based on a human urge is more visceral, more understandable. It is seemingly easier to connect to a film like Shame because the urge for sex is one that we all share. McQueen makes it easy to escape into Brandon by giving us the fruits of the addiction, one that we can all in some way relate to and are intrigued by before handing us the bitter costs of the addiction. He places us on the inside of the story of addiction in a way I have yet to see done in film.
Films like Requiem for a Dream, Train-spotting, Jesus’ Son, Gia, Leave the lights on, 28 days, walk the line, Ray and Rush all document the lives of addicts. These films allow us to feel compassion for the poor saps who fall hopelessly into addiction. We feel for them, we understand that there are hurts that drove them toward the inability to cope without drugs or alcohol, but we don’t connect viscerally. Often these movies hit the viewer over the head with flashbacks from a troubled or abusive youth and expository dialogue fills almost every scene as if to justify the behavior of the addict to make sure we understand they fell victim to addiction because there was no other way. What Shame doesn’t do is attempt to explain or apologize for Brandon’s behavior. McQueen captures addiction with precision without buying in to the need to explain the roots of the behavior. In her article, “The relationship between sexual Addiction and Sexual Dysfunction,” for the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, Vol. 3, June Dobb’s describes the unyielding shame and self hatred that is felt when a person goes in search of fulfilling their need for sex. She explains, “They continue to feel driven and worthless, even upon completion of the very sex acts which they originally felt compelled to accomplish. And then the self-loathing grip of depression sets in. It has been said, with bitter humor, that sexual addiction is "the athlete's foot of the mind," because scratching (i.e., satisfaction) only intensifies the pain.” I have yet to see another addiction film encompass the itch that can’t be scratched the way Shame does. McQueen stays away from over explaining and allows the story to tell itself, leaving us with only the brave, bare essentials. McQueen has said that with Hunger he was “Consciously attempting to avoid any simplistic notion of a hero or martyr or victim,” (22) and I think the same is true in Shame. He allows room for a human to be human without the need to explain away behavior that could be perceived as distasteful. He gives us only one line about Brandon’s past when Sissy says, “We aren’t bad people. We just come from a bad place.” And this is enough.
Why does a British director choose to place this story in America and cast British actors to boot? There seems to be an intolerance for the idea of addiction and especially sex addiction in the united states. It isn’t something that is taken seriously. It is perceived as an inability to control oneself and there is widespread denial of the sexual abuse that runs rampant in the homes of Americans. Ironically abuse also appears to be at the root of almost all addictions. Perhaps it takes an outsider to draw out the truth of a situation. McQueen has taken a keen interest in the broken relationships between people in other countries, first with Ireland in Hunger, then in America with Shame, and again he bravely points to America in his latest film 12 Years a slave. McQueen is not the first director to point to American in a way that most American directors are either too blind to see, or are too afraid to pinpoint. 1999‘s American Beauty, a film by British director Sam Mendes was one of the most authentic commentaries on the American life that has come to us in years. He did it again when he gave us Revolutionary Road in 2008. There are others like Anthony Minghella who gave us 2003’s Cold Mountain, David Slade who directed Hard Candy, a film about a teenage girl who traps a pedophile she meets online and tortures him and many many more. Are we too self important to comment on our own flaws? Does it take a foreign director to force us to look ourselves and our fellow man in the eye?