Shame: A Film by Steve McQueen

The film opens, and we are staring down from a place on the ceiling. There is a bed below us, and the room is cast in a cold light that feels lonesome. On the bed lay the protagonist, Brandon Sullivan, naked except for a blue sheet that covers his hips, One hand rests low on his abdomen, and he is staring fixedly up at a spot on the ceiling.

The scene is quiet, the man is perfectly still and wears a stern expression. The scene drags on.

With nothing to distract us, we examine the figure below, assessing his appearance, perhaps passing judgment or verdict on what we make of him. The scene continues, and we wonder what is he thinking? The scene continues, and we wonder, what am I thinking?

The man gets up, and the film begins.

The man on the bed is German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender, and the film, written and directed by Steve McQueen, is called Shame.

Released in 2011, the film has attracted a lot of attention, both for its subject matter and for what is considered shocking male nudity and resulting NC-17 rating. Over the years, I feel that the power of this film is often overshadowed by the movie-going public’s preoccupation with sexuality and nudity. That, I fear, is the real shame, as this film is evocative in a way that almost has nothing to do with sexuality, but rather human vulnerability and struggles.

In this film, we meet Brandon Sullivan, a man living in New York City and working in an office building. We find that he suffers from sex addiction, an affliction that we discover has leaked into nearly every facet of his life. Stripped of the usual Hollywood hype of sex, we see a man who is struggling to establish any semblance of control, who is lost, scared, and breaking.

He cannot restrain his urges, masturbating at work and in public restrooms, hiring prostitutes, seducing strangers, watching porn, calling chat lines and cam-girls. His perfectly constructed routines that keep his affliction private are violently disrupted when his sister unexpectedly comes to stay.

Their history is unknown and is never clarified, but it is clear that they both represent a painful past to one another. Her arrival signals a dissent for them both and calls into sharp relief an evident love and unmistakable pain.

The relationship between the siblings is explored only in the present moment, whatever has brought them to this dysfunctional present is never discussed, but has been a source of controversy for the film. Writer-director Steve McQueen doesn’t place much value on the debate, and I find his attitude to be a persuasive one. Once you have gotten around the hype, the film is startlingly raw and honest, but also calm. Nothing about it inspires controversy, as the characterization is so overwhelmingly natural that at times it seems difficult to believe that anyone could be working from a script.

In a film that displays full male nudity within the first five minutes, I think it is remarkable that the most alarming moments happen in the character’s faces.

In one scene, Sullivan is watching his sister perform her rendition of “New York, New York” in a club that he has taken his boss out to dinner. The sincerity of Carey Mulligan’s performance has a way of making you perfectly still. When the camera focuses on Fassbender, it seems impossible that his emotions are not real, as you see his eyes lose some of their focus as his character’s mind is being drawn back into a past we are never privy to. His eyes naturally fill with tears, and one escapes down his cheek to be hastily wiped away as he comes back to himself.

As a viewer, you feel as though you have witnessed something too private for the screen.

When we do see Sullivan giving into his afflictions, there is a disturbing lack of intimacy. We are not made to be shocked by brutality or callousness; these aren’t the scenes from some porno; we are witnessing a man in distress, who is spiraling out of control. This fact is made all too clear towards the film’s crescendo, which I will not give away here.

There is no great conclusion and no profound healing, but rather a realistic hope of a better existence. Shame is a quiet film; the score is subtle and well suited to viewer introspection; the final scenes are just as vulnerable as the first, just as stark.

I think it is reasonable to assume that anyone who watches this film will come away with a great deal to think about, and a considerable amount of emotions. I would like to see more people experience Shame for what it is, rather than the superficial gawking over the lead actor.

Still, this uncomfortable immaturity is perhaps another layer to the film’s intentions, serving as a work of art, to find its life inside the viewer in whatever way possible.

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