Assembling its protagonist from stark snapshots of a daily routine, Shame embodies sexual addiction through detached observation, presenting the spindly, compulsive Brandon (Michael Fassbender) without editorializing, exposing the yearning behind his concupiscence by sapping each climax of its satisfaction and passion. The method of documentation is austere and the performances reserved to scarce, subtle glances, but Steve McQueen’s eye for nuance and composure elevate wanton degradation to the heights of Shakespearean tragedy, transforming a life measured in short bursts into a treatise on millennial disconnection.
The appearance of physical health and wealth are the facade that obscures Brandon’s nocturnal escapades, each impulse concealed beneath a shy demeanor and the loquacious boasting of his adulterous employer (James Badge Dale). When liberated from the social and professional constraints of an anonymous corporate career, he manifests his prurient daydreams in games of carnal conquest, engaging potential paramours through understated gesture and amorous stare. McQueen and his team of photographers capture this exchange of body language through fleeting glimpses of crossed legs and moistened lips, revealing infidelity with a gentle pan and the soar of strings, inserting melodrama into the frivolity of casual sex.
Aside from the emotive intonations of the score, the production is as streamlined and spartan as Brandon’s lifestyle, which makes the sudden arrival of an erratic younger sister seem like a jarring and unwelcome intrusion. Sissy (Carey Mulligan) even possesses a fleshly magnetism that coaxes Brandon’s suppressed urges to the surface, transforming their cohabitation into a whirlwind of suggestive altercations and misdirected anger. Nestled just beneath Brandon’s fury and disappointment is a fear of intimacy, manifested by years of impersonal intercourse and the implication of a grim adolescence, personified by Sissy’s juvenility and incompetence.
Sean Bobbitt’s camera is as invasive as Sissy’s need for affection, coldly spying its subject as he nervously eyeballs clocks and bides time until his next release, constructing a photographic prison from the hopeless shards of Brandon’s own gnawing temptations. Fassbender mirrors the visual desperation by treating his subject like an empty vessel, evoking loneliness without words and only springing to life at the rush of blood and wince of orgasm.
Ultimately, Brandon’s inability to perform during a romantic tryst is what exposes his insecurities, transforming his pragmatic opinion on marriage and polyamory into a safeguard from abandonment, stemming from the tacit childhood trauma that lingers in his mind’s eye or memories of his forsaken Irish home. Steve McQueen approaches this anguish clinically, as if reading from a transcript, maintaining a distant and candid viewpoint without ever leering at the fallout of Brandon’s eventual collapse. The bravura with which he handles this delicate subject lends Brandon’s quest for instant gratification a macrocosmic timelessness, reflecting human agony in the face of convenience and accessibility.
Shame (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2011)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan
Photographed by Sean Bobbitt