The pivotal scene of “Shame” has Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his boss David (James Badge Dale) watching Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) sing in a fancy, high-above-Manhattan cocktail lounge. She’s singing a version of “New York, New York” in a fragile voice and at a glacial pace, wringing pathos from a song that might not deserve it. Director Steve McQueen fills the frame with Sissy’s face for almost the whole protracted length of the song, her eyes flickering downward but with little expression. Only briefly are we allowed to glance away from Sissy to the table where David sits, like us, captivated, and Brandon cannot quite bear to watch.
We have been introduced to Brandon as a successful thirtysomething Manhattanite, living alone. We see him in the opening scenes padding naked around his apartment, watching porn, having sex with a prostitute, flirting silently on the subway. None of what we see seems seedy. He conspicuously and repeatedly ignores a message on his answering machine from a female voice, someone who clearly has strong feelings for him in some way. Celebrating success at work with his colleagues, he outflirts David before a group of women; when he leaves, one picks him up for some al fresco sex.
We learn that the voice on the answering machine is Sissy’s. She appears in Brandon’s apartment one day, surprising him despite the messages. We see her as emotive, demonstrative, playful – a musician, a performer – utterly at odds with Brandon. She is disruptive to him, but he allows her to stay for a time.
Later, in the lounge, as Sissy’s song ends there are tears in Brandon’s eyes. Why? Because he is forced, like us, to watch? Throughout the film we are permitted to sense some of what he feels for Sissy but we are never allowed to know why. If Brandon’s shame relates directly to her, in any way – if it even has a source – we can only guess. David, on the other hand, is awed by Sissy’s performance; whatever Brandon is being forced to feel, David, unencumbered, feels only attraction. David and Sissy openly flirt, and end up together, loudly, in Brandon’s bed. Brandon is forced out, to run on the nearly empty, late-night Manhattan streets. McQueen shows us Brandon’s run in a long, side-on tracking shot that reflects the long scene of Sissy’s song. We saw her up close and static, but we see him in motion. Whatever he is feeling we have to infer from his movements.
Sissy becomes the object for David. Is this what Brandon cannot stand? His relationship with Sissy is the only real relationship we have seen him to hold, yet David sees her in the same way that we have seen Brandon look at prostitutes and strangers on the train. I found it almost maddening to guess whether Brandon was feeling possessiveness or was spurred to feel something about his own life. Whatever it is, it drives him for the rest of the film. He tries to establish a proper relationship with a coworker, and goes on a real date. But Sissy is there when he gets home, there to observe him, and perhaps there in his mind when he cannot consummate his new relationship. He seems unable to address his relationship to Sissy, and unable to establish a relationship with someone else.
In this limbo, “Shame” remains beautiful throughout. McQueen presents a New York that I saw as rich and flat, as if seen through a window. We first see Brandon from only the torso down, but by the end his face is profoundly unhidden, and the progression is matched by Fassbender’s transition from feline assurance to unrestrained doubt.
I found it difficult to see “Shame” as an addiction movie, despite that Brandon is explicitly intended to be a sex addict. His behavior is certainly not normal – or at least it covers the whole spectrum of normalness from top to bottom – but the degree of his compulsiveness seems entirely reasonable. No revelations about addiction will be forthcoming; the film is infused with sex, but this is about the sibling relationship between Brandon and Sissy. She is undeniable, and he is defensive. McQueen and Mulligan combine to make Sissy magnetic, but still Brandon cannot be drawn in.