Intensely lonely and forlorn in an impersonal urban environment (ah, the cliché of it all), yuppie Brandon Sullivan is addicted to sexual pornography and to sexual encounters of his own that conform to the impersonality and meaninglessness—in both senses, the rush—this pornography provides. However, none of this is the “shame” to which the title of Shame refers; rather, it is all the cover-up of Brandon’s shame.
What at root eats this young man are his feelings for Sissy, his equally neurotic adoring younger sister who, without anyplace else to go, moves into his New York apartment, thereby invading his secret life and his need for privacy. A major source of Sissy’s overcompensating dependency is her lifelong frustration and incomprehension regarding her brother’s hostility for her; she asks about this, and in the film’s most revealing shot, with the camera aimed at the back of her brother’s couch, when Sissy moves closer to him Brandon immediately pulls away. Through his choice of pretty blonde one-night companions, we realize (unless we are dense) that the distance thatBrandonhas labored to create between himself and Sissy has originated in his desire to elude his too-close feelings for her. His sex partners strike us as Sissy-substitutes—with one exception: an African-American co-worker to whom he is more healthily drawn but with whom he cannot complete their sexual intercourse.
There is a significant problem with the tack that scenarists Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen, and director McQueen, have taken: a confounding and crippling indecision as to whether Brandon is at all conscious of his incestuous attraction to Sissy. Moreover, audiences may be divided between incest and homosexuality as Brandon’s secret shame, as both elements seem to be tumbling around inside his psyche. Stressing the latter, prior to Brandon’s gay encounter, is the Greek attention that McQueen gives his felinely graceful male protagonist, such as when Brandon is roaming his apartment, naked, in the early morning hours, and Sissy herself—consider her boyish haircut and her name—may be a maladroit attempt to blend the two “outsider” categories. The filmmakers’ indecision as to the degree of consciousness that Brandon brings to his lifelong flight from Sissy makes a bloody mess of their film.
It may also be what prompts the film’s most objectionable aspect: McQueen’s determination to so convert his audiences into voyeurs ofBrandon’s sex life that they also begin to feel a sense of shame. This is not the usual movie manipulation, but manipulation it is nonetheless.
Yet there is also undeniable formal beauty to Shame. For example, in lieu of a chronology of scenes McQueen has created a series of elaborate set-pieces that cumulatively express both the repetitiousness ofBrandon’s sexual existence, hence, his insatiable appetite, and his need to manufacture self-contained playlets where he can bury his shame.
The lead acting is a draw. Michael Fassbender is an inept embarrassment throughout as Brandon; Carey Mulligan ranges between being poignant and absolutely heartbreaking as Sissy. Every man of a certain age will want to protect and comfort Sissy with all his paternal tenderness and strength.
This British film won lots of awards, including Black Reel Awards for McQueen’s direction and his and Morgan’s script, Fassbender, best actor, London critics and British Independent Film Award, and Mulligan, best supporting actress, Hollywood Film Festival. McQueen won the prize of the international critics at Venice, where Fassbender won as best actor.
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