Plot: In New York City, Brandon's carefully cultivated private life -- which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction -- is disrupted when his sister Sissy arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Abi Morgan (screenplay), Steve McQueen (screenplay)
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale
“Life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of "parties" with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter - they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship - but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”
― Sylvia Plath
When I love the movie I usually review it right away. But with "Shame" which is one of the very few movies I give the highest rating to, I just couldn't. I knew I won't be able to review it properly after one viewing and I knew I needed time to see it again. So now that is out on DVD I could finally gather strength to watch the film again and I'm finally able to properly write about it. Because "Shame" is one of the heaviest and emotionally draining films I've ever seen. For me to cry during a movie I need to feel connected to the character or at least be incredibly moved by the story. With Steve McQueen's films "Hunger" and now "Shame" it's difficult to feel the connection - both Bobby Sands and Brandon aren't the kind of characters you can easily relate to. Yet I couldn't hold back tears during "Hunger" and for the last 20 minutes of "Shame" I basically wept uncontrollably.
As "Hunger" shows the destruction of the body and the prevailing of the soul "Shame" shows the destruction of human soul through succumbing to the most primal instincts. Brandon is a successful guy who lives very routine life - he appears to be polite, well behaved, organized as he walks to his corporate job every day and as he interacts with people in his office. Everything in his house is neat, clean, composed. But Brandon's soul is completely different - he has a destructive sex addiction that he hides very carefully from everyone around him. Sex is the only escape for him - from his routine life and from the pain that he feels, for whatever reason. But it destroys him - whenever somebody says "I think you are disgusting" he immediately thinks it's directed at him. When his computer is taken away he panics, because he knows what kind of filth he has on his hard drive. But the worst is yet to come.
Brandon has a sister - Sissy - who keeps calling him. He never picks up. Finally Sissy comes over and stays in his house. She is completely different from her brother - she is a free spirited musician who appears to fall in love deeply and quickly - she changes the cities she lives in frequently as her partners, although she loves too much and it's her main problem. When she comes to stay over at Brandon's apartment the very first night she is in tears talking to someone on the phone, basically saying that she would do anything to be with him. Brandon clearly suffers seeing his sister unhappy. But there is a reason to why he is trying to build a wall between them, why he doesn't pick up the phone when she is calling and why he doesn't want her to stay with him in his place.
At one point Sissy says 'We are not bad people, we just come from the bad place". What that means, we never find out. There are hints though - Brandon picks up Sissy red and seductive scarf with baseball bat and smells it. When she is kissing his boss in the taxi next to him he looks visibly angry. When they have sex Brandon is furious and gets out of apartment to run. Sissy is more than comfortable with Brandon - she gets to his bed naked to hug him, she doesn't cover herself up when he sees her naked. The sad thing, though, is that whatever happened to them in the past they are all they have. Sissy tells Brandon that if she moved away she wouldn't even hear from him. Although their relationship as messed up as it looks may be better than the way they live their lives at the moment. They both have been through something traumatic enough that it followed them to their adult life. And they have destructive ways of coping with it. Instead of letting Sissy, who understands him, in, Brandon pushes her away.
Although, who knows? Maybe nothing bad happened to them. Maybe the "bad place" Sissy refers to is where all of us come from. With Justine in Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia" there was no reason given to us for why she is behaving the way she does. She suffered from depression, it may also be the case for siblings here. Or they simply have unresolved childhood issues - it is stated in many psychology related articles that a sister is the sexual object for her brother, someone he secretly desires. This may be the case for Brandon who loves her and wants to protect her, but with time he realizes how dangerous for him protecting her may be. Sissy at the same time sees him as her support, someone she could run to for help, being quite immature probably not even realizing half of his problems and hidden desires.
The descent ends in a threesome with Brandon and two women, which is the movie's most repulsive sex scene stripped of any connection and intimacy. As Brandon climaxes, there is only suffering, hopelessness and shame painted on his face. Through the years of emotional negligence, inability to connect and succumbing to his addiction Brandon managed to become cold and quite inconsiderate of other people's feelings. His argument with Sissy finally triggers an event that may or may not change Brandon. The movie's opening and ending are tied-in and are extraordinarily effective. Though many claim the film's ending is ambiguous all you need to do is to look deeply into Brandon's eyes and notice his lack of typical reaction to know that things will change. Though is it for the best? If he gives up the one thing that allowed him to escape, however shortly, from his pain, what will be left? Is there even hope for him anymore?
McQueen as with "Hunger" created uncompromising and brutal picture. He masterfully directed the movie - the scenes portraying Brandon's quick and superficial encounters are edited in very quick way, showing the lack of emotion both he and the women he is with put in the act. There is nothing sensual, romantic or alluring about the things they do. It's dirty, ugly and awful. There is something profoundly repulsive about the sex scenes here - sex Brandon has is like a drug, but also like a very primitive act. While I always maintained sex doesn't have to be always associated with love, it should at the very least be associated with passion. Though the scenes are torrid, passion is one of the last words that I'd associate them with. McQueen perfectly shows that what Brandon does comes from anger, pain, all the horrible and destructive emotions that basically strip sex from anything emotional and intimate.