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Review | Shame

By now, you’ve heard that director Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort Shame, screening at the 49th New York Film Festival, features Full Frontal Fassbender. Let’s just get this over with: The rumors are true, but the context is misleading. Shame is anything but a Michael Fassbender swoon-fest (although the man is admittedly easy on the eyes). It features plenty of sexual gratuity, for sure, but the visuals come with a price: the incredibly affecting, devastating journey into the psyche of a sex addict.

Fassbender is Brandon, a single professional living alone in New York City whose private urges play out in myriad ways. Prostitutes, porn, public masturbation. Alarmingly, and much to Fassbender’s credit, he never comes off as predatory or creepy. Troubled and charismatic, he’s acting out of compulsion, and his co-conspirators are all willing to aid him. He’s forced to account for his actions when his sister Sissy (the divine Carey Mulligan) shows up and crashes at his place, which is when the film evolves into a fascinating character study not only of sexual depravity, but of sibling relations. And McQueen, as a Londoner, magnificently captures New York City in a cold, anonymous context without sacrificing authenticity or delving into seedy territory.

What’s intriguing about Shame is that McQueen has chosen to contextualize sexual addiction in the way we’ve previously only seen drug addiction. It’s shocking at first, this greeting of the subject with such frankness, yet the dissection becomes almost clinical. At a point, you begin to look beyond the nudity and lurid acts and see the person, blurring in and out of focus, behind it all.

Speaking of focus, McQueen’s vision is unyielding. Many of the long takes, often played out to create discomfort, are reminiscent of Blue Valentine. The film refuses to look away, knowing full well that its audience begs it to. Brandon’s descent is peppered with images of his reflection, growing more warped as the narrative gains momentum. In fact, Sissy’s introduction to us — naked, stepping out of Brandon’s shower — is through a reflection in his bathroom mirror. The metaphor is pretty clear, signifying the distance between the siblings, their emotional disassociation. But that’s what’s so wonderful about McQueen’s style: It’s all right there for you, and it creates a back story without the need for dialogue.

There’s been talk of the sibling relationship in the film, that there’s an incestuous undertone involved. I didn’t see it; when you grow up with a sibling, the boundaries of privacy are blurred. What resonated more was the unspoken history between them — a shared pain, something that deeply scarred them both. As with any trauma, those who experience it either grow together or drift apart. Sissy went the way of the extrovert, the filterless dramatic; Brandon internalized, isolated himself and became lost in his addiction. The friction between the two seems born more of Sissy’s attempts to wrench emotion and connection from Brandon.

To me, a point was also raised regarding the perceived emotional, versus the physical, disconnect in men. Brandon is a person who cannot function on an emotional level — to get through the day is to create checkpoints of release for his compulsion. A laptop playing porn in his kitchen; masturbating in his office bathroom; dipping into a bar for post-work drinks then taking a woman home. Beyond his physical demands, his insurmountable struggle is born from a yearning to instill emotion into his acts. His unraveling is truly moving stuff, but I have to wonder: Would this point have been as effective, or perhaps, more effective, if the lead were played by a woman?

However you choose to interpret it, Shame is one of those rare films that affords every viewer a valid takeaway. The mulling of its players and themes will roil within you, an urge you can’t suppress.


  • Kidkapow


  • David

    Is he a sex addict or a homosexual who cannot accept his sexuality, so “fails” as a heterosexual?

  • canmark

    I saw Shame at the Toronto film festival, and I agree mostly with your take on it.

    I, too, did NOT see anything incestuous in the relationship between Brandon and Sissy (in the present or past), nor did I see Brandon as a repressed homosexual. 

    Sex addiction, like any other addiction (drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) is not about the actual sex. Brandon is not a connoisseur of sex any more than an alcoholic is a connoisseur of wine. But he’s not a “slut” either, but someone who can only connect physically with other people–not emotionally.

  • VVS

    maybe this will shed some light for you.

    Recall the moment we first meet Sissy. She throws a towel at Brandon and stands there naked, for a whole length of an awkward pause. Brandon snaps out of his pause and tries to play it off in jest, but as soon as he leaves the bathroom, he stops just outside the door looking troubled. 

    Now, did you pay attention to the editing? At this very point, the song kept pulsating louder and louder…the lyrics in the song were “I just wanna love you, I just wanna love you”

    That’s just one of the many moments that hints at Brandon’s incestuous desire towards Sissy. I don’t think it has ever been acted upon, but its there. Which is what prevents him from having a normal relationship, because every woman he develops an emotional connection with him reminds him of his sister. Why? Because he has an emotional connection with her, AND he wants to fuck her. So what’s the difference between her and them? 

  • Katie Calautti

    Again, one of the things I love about the film is its myriad takeaways. In regards to the song, “love” doesn’t always correspond to sex. Again, I saw the emotional implications of that relationship as opposed to the physical – and yes, I can absolutely see that Brandon is torn between the two drives regarding her (and everyone). Whether Sissy is the genesis of the rift is up for grabs, but it seems to make sense.

    Stay tuned for a post-screening panel write-up, featuring McQueen and Fassbender. I think you’ll find it insightful!