Shame (2011)

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.

Links: IMDb

2 thoughts on “Shame (2011)

  1. I agreed that Shame is not just simply about a sex addiction. I think Brandon has Narcissistic Personality Disorder as well because he has all the classic symptoms of NPD. I met a Brandon in real life. A person I loved wholeheartedly, but he couldn't understand my love for him and my hard time after he left me the first time. The whole relationship he made me feel like I was a prostitute to him or even “for” him. Every time we met up, it's only for sex. He liked ignoring people after he sucked up all the benefits from them and they tried to request the “equality” from him, or the people he classified as interrupting his independency, like Brandon kept ignoring Sissy’s phone calls. He told me his family was pathetic, and he hated he had to pay any responsibilities for his family, like Brandon told Sissy he didn't bring her to the world, he's the independency. He thanked people for doing something for him, but he liked claiming the efforts to himself, and when people became critical to him, he couldn’t accept it and would become outrage. He has the face like Brandon, attractive, but his charm was superficial. He easily felt bored with people who always stayed the same, like Brandon said to Marianna what she wanted to be, Brandon's response to her was, “That's boring.” He had MANY relationships before me, and as soon as his exes tried to get close to him emotionally, he immediately pushed them away, although I’m not sure how long they lasted. Mine with him was long, but during the time he has the frequencies of ignorance to me. He doesn’t like the idea of marriage. He didn’t directly tell me one person for the rest of his life wasn’t realistic, like Brandon said to Marianne, but he had shown me many signs that he’d not have marriage. His rage and violence I don't even have to mention, just like Brandon to Sissy. The good thing was I didn't receive the physical violence “in person,” but I got his verbal violence. His sex life was very nasty, he loved porn, masturbation, anal, threesome, group sex, etc., almost any kinds of sex you could find in porn he wanted to try (except for gay sex), just like Brandon, he even told me he wanted to watch me fucked by somebody else, and he tried to get me to do threesome or group sex with him. I never did because it’s against my faith. I believed during my time with him, he had been fucking around and even buying prostitutes, because one time we met up in a hotel lobby (we were traveling to another country, and tried meeting up in a hotel), he pulled out his hand trying to ask for a hand shake in front of people, I didn’t quite understand this body language at that time, I was very confused, it seemed I was a stranger to him. I didn’t give him the hand shake. When we entered the hotel room, he pushed me into the bathroom and told me to clean up myself, and he’s waiting on the bed. I felt insulted a bit, but I didn’t react to him because I loved him. He’s a very classic NPD.

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  2. I think the scene Sissy and David in bed, Brandon couldn’t stand and felt angry was not because he cared Sissy as a sister, but he couldn’t stand his “boss” was having “sex” with his sister, and he couldn’t have it right away but had to stand listening to their moans. NPD has the superficial superiority to others. His boss, obviously, was superior to him in the social status, and now he could even have his sister’s body. It’s not just only about he cared that his boss was a married man. He felt “jealous” that his boss could have what he couldn’t. If you watched the movie carefully, he WISHED he could have sex with his sister, but he still had a sense of moral. The details from he smelled Sissy’s clothes to Sissy embraced him from his back when he was making the breakfast, and her clothes were so thin that she looked nearly naked, and to his rage to her when Sissy cuddled Brandon in bed like “brother and sister,” and to he wanted Sissy to move out. He’s still controlling his consciousness not to fuck her. When Sissy asked Brandon why he’s always angry with her for no reasons, his answer was she always pushed him to the limit. What limit? The whole movie I didn’t see any signs of Sissy making him difficult, the only difficulty was he wanted to fuck her so much, but he couldn’t, for the sake of morals, and she lived with him.
    My case, he allowed me to have sex with others when he’s not around, but one time when he asked me if I had sex with others, I told him no, and he told me he’s very happy I didn’t. I was so confused he wanted me to fuck wild, but then he actually didn’t want me to do so, and I thought he loved me. He didn’t love me, but he felt jealous if I gave myself to others. The confusion was he said he wanted to watch me to fuck with others or have threesome or group sex with him, I think because his life was nasty, so if I had a wild sex, he could call me slut, bitch or whore to make himself feel less guilty about his life.
    Back to the movie, he suddenly “thought about” Sissy for her suicide attempt was because he suddenly understood Sissy’s words (family should care for each other)? I’m not sure about this, maybe he indeed wanted to change his life from now on, or he saved Sissy because he didn’t want to be called “murder” to his sister’s suicide because she tried so many times to call him to save her. The last scene Brandon stared at the woman’s wedding ring, maybe, maybe he indeed wanted to change of his life. Otherwise, he would stalked the married woman like in the scene of beginning.

    This movie made me see through the person I had sex with. I wish I could help him, but it’s impossible. I think only something “tragically” happened to him, he would want to wake up.

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