Disgrace. Humiliation. Indignity. Degradation. Never has a movie been more aptly named than Shame. In a sentence, the film documents one man’s compulsive, tormented search for connection. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since I saw Hunger and fell into complete awe of Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender. Now I’ve seen it twice in the three days since it came out in theaters three days ago and my awe has only grown. Both times the force of it left me staggering, not the way Hunger did, but somehow in a manner equally depressing and if possible more disconcerting. Still, there is no mistaking whose work it is. The way McQueen uses the sound of words unspoken, a kind of blank, heavy silence only punctuated by explosions of rage and despair; despite the divergent settings, it’s the same in both. And the settings are vastly different, not just by default either. Hunger is all concrete walls and industrial gray-greens, dark spaces and bright white hospital sheets, whereas in Shame everything sparkles, towering skyscrapers reach for the heavens and rivers dip down to depthes unknown. It’s a New York City movie, the kind where the city functions as almost a character in itself, the sort of film that could not be set anywhere else. There have been several very different promotional posters released, but this one is the best in my opinion:
It speaks to the unvarying presence of glass in the film, windows and screens, invisible barriers that give the illusion of openness but nevertheless are solid and impenetrable. Their presence is no accident.
It’s the perfect metaphor for Brandon, the main character, who lives his life in such a state of profound isolation that he doesn’t conciously feel the ache of his own loneliness. He’s like the anorexic whose been hungry for so long that she doesn’t even feel it anymore, her body has given up asking (begging, pleading) for nourishment, except what he’s starved for is connection. In this 21st century world obsessed with replacing connection with consumption, it’s easy to see and to use addiction as a metaphor, and such comparisons are especially tempting with sex addiction. Aren’t all men sex addicts? someone invariably quips when the topic arises. Well no, they’re not, and Shame commendably resists the urge to claim otherwise. Brandon isn’t a stand-in for Every Man, he’s not American society distilled into a single personality, and to reduce him to that would be to do him and us a disservice. This movie is no morality tale, no grand statement on the state of the human condition. It’s something more complicated and in some ways difficult: a character study, no more and no less.
Sissy, Brandon’s sister, is his other half, the flipside of his coin, the physical embodiment of all the neediness and desperation for contact, for connection, he is disgusted and revolted by in himself. She begs to be loved, almost literally at times, by Brandon and anyone else who falls into her orbit. Brandon alternately cares for her, letting her stay with him, making sure she has money and giving her his own awkward form of advice, and erupts into fury at her. “I don’t know why you’re so angry with me,” she tells him, but to me it felt clear enough. When he rages at her, calls her disgusting and pathetically dependent, the projection is hopelessly transparent.
It’s never clear what industry Brandon’s in, but my best guess from the few hints given is marketing. With that in mind, it’s hard not to compare him to another character, one who, in his own words, “more or less redefined promiscuity.” But while Brian Kinney of Queer as Folk does his best to fuck, drink and drug the pain away, flirts with suicide, and proclaims to one and all that he “doesn’t believe in love,” his declarations never really ring true. Even he doesn’t truly seem to buy what he’s selling. Brandon, on the other hand, believes his own story with heartbreaking intensity and sincerity. He seems to honestly think that sex is his salvation and that connection is a fairy-tale for suckers, and he feels betrayed and humiliated by his own desire for meaningful human contact. The slightest crack in his façade sends him reeling into a whirlwind of rage, self-destruction and loathing, played out through a mad scramble for sexual energy in any possible form and mindless encounters with every warm body he can get his hands on, and though his partners are invariably beautiful and he is undeniably gorgeous, there is absolutely nothing sexy about the acts, not even a little.