“Film is the revelation of the truth of human behavior”
“It is obvious that our brokenness is often most painfully experienced with respect to our sexuality. My own and my friends struggles make it clear how central our sexuality is to the way we think and feel about ourselves. Our sexuality reveals to us our enormous yearning for communion. It is precisely around this yearning for communication that we experience so much anguish”
Covered by sheets he lays there alone and naked in his bed. His facial expression is that of utter resignation. The blue hue of the sheets resembles the color of the ocean. This man is Brandon and he is slowly drowning in a sea of sex and isolation by his own conflicted free will.
This is the opening shot to one of best films from the past year: Shame. Written and directed by auteur Steve McQueen (Hunger) the film is a stunning work of art. It is a character study of two broken people: one running away from connection, the other starving for it. Those two people are brother and sister, Brandon and Sissy, played by Michael Fasbender and Carey Mulligan. They both give the best performances of their careers thus far.
Brandon is a handsome, rich, smooth, and successful New Yorker. He has everything anyone could want. However inside he is controlled by his addiction to sex, more directly to the orgasm. He wakes up in the morning and masturbates, watches porn at work, masturbates in the bathroom, comes home watches porn, and then usually goes out and finds a girl to sleep with. His sexual addiction controls his entire life. Then his sister disrupts his “normal” routine when she temporarily moves into his apartment. While the details are never fully revealed, it is implied that the two had a traumatic childhood.
Ironically Brandon uses sex as a way to distance himself from human connection. Sissy, however, is searching for human connection, which brings out buried desires within Brandon.
For Brandon’s key struggle is that he harbors both a desire for a life of isolation and for a life in communion with others.
What ultimately makes Shame so profound, powerful, and even worth re-watching is the filmmaking. Brandon’s spiritual wrestling between connection and isolation is beautifully articulated through the framing, editing, and direction.
Despite its NC-17 rating most of the sex scenes in Shame are brief and cold. McQueen hardly ever shows the faces of the women Brandon is sleeping with for these women are a means to an end for him.
This especially evident in the climax of the film where Brandon has an ménage a trois with two prostitutes. The scene is significant in that it is edited quite differently than the others. The camera is always up close and the bodies of these two women are never fully seen. One only sees a breast, a leg, eyes, or lips as Brandon interacts with them.
These women are objects, the ultimate way for Brandon to isolate himself from the world. When Brandon climaxes his face contorts, it is not full of pleasure. Instead it is full of pain, suffering, and emptiness. It is most horrifying and disturbing scene in the film.*
The moments in which Brandon experiences connection are composed very differently that the scenes discussed above. In one of the films most haunting scenes Brandon and a co-worker go to a ritzy nightclub to see Sissy sing. The nightclub is very cramped and very noisy, until Sissy begins to sing a melancholic rendition of New York New York. The camera closes in tight on Sissy’s face, its shallow focus blurring out everything else. It is a long take.
The film cuts away only twice. The first time both Brandon and his co-worker are in the frame. The second is a longer take with only Brandon in the frame as tears stream down his eyes. In that quiet moment both him and Sissy have connected.
Which explains why he is so harsh to her after the performance. He is trying to fight back against his longing for communion.
Another long take is a sex scene between Brandon and a woman he has actually started having affection for. It is a single five-minute take of foreplay between Brandon and her. Unlike other sex scenes in the film it is playful and authentic. Unfortunately Brandon’s own body betrays his longing for connection and he is not able to engage in the actual act with her.
Another visual motif is McQueen’s framing of Brandon. More often than not Brandon is on the edge of the frame, teetering on non-existence. The amount of empty space around him has a subtle subconscious emotional effect on the viewer.
In 1951 Alexandre Astruc wrote in his famous essay Cinema-Stylo: “ The cinema is gradually becoming a language. By language I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel.” Astruc would more than likely be proud of Shame for its superb use of the camera as a pen. McQueen creates his own language as every set, piece of music, lighting, acting, editing, and framing are used to fully engage the audience in a story about broken people struggling to find peace. Shame cannot be easily dismissed or shaken, nor should it. This is serious art for serious moviegoers.
*Some critics have complained that the threesome wasn’t sexy! I still don’t understand this criticism, McQueen is clearly not trying to make a sexy film.