The shame in Steve McQueen’s 2011 film is never clearly stated, but nonetheless finds plenty of opportunities to present itself. Perhaps we see it in the film’s opening scenes, when a married woman feels a flush of guilt upon considering an affair with another man. Or maybe it comes later, when our hero finds himself caught in an embarrassing moment during an encounter with a woman, unable to carry on with a date that seemed promising. Or possibly it appears toward the end, when a young woman clings to a life threatened by self-inflicted wounds in a hospital as cold and sterile as the rest of the world feels. Whose shame do we experience and what is the source?
The film Shame allows us a glimpse into the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a young man living the high life in New York City with a nice job, classy apartment, and blessed with the good looks of a man who has never known a lonely Friday night. Like many metropolitan tales about young men, it seems that his life couldn’t be better. The only catch is that Brandon is addicted to sex. The film makes no secret or judgement of this fact, instead inviting us to be voyeurs to the parade of nightly visitors and sexual acts that comprise Brandon’s life.
While the title “Shame” elicits thoughts of the Puritanical derivation of social humiliation and spiritual guilt, neither of those possibilities seem to bother Brandon much. He lets an intern take the blame when pornography is found on his work computer because it’s just easier. He makes no attempt to explain himself when he is caught in a compromising position with a live webcam feed. Cold and completely devoid of emotion, Brandon appears immune to shame as we traditionally know it.
Instead, the shame we sense is a deeper one that goes beyond societal explanations of right and wrong. There is never a clear definition of it because the concept is intangible and difficult to define. Shame exists as a consensus that is universally experienced but only relatively defined.
Despite the rumors, Shame is not just about sex. Rather, it is about the guidance we receive throughout life, by which we learn what is right and wrong, proper and shameful. Shame and honor become the counterpoints by which life is lived, pushing us to strive for one while avoiding the other. Like all cultural constructs, the awareness of shame and its ramifications are largely conveyed nonverbally, inferred and understood through a series of unwritten, unspoken codes. In Shame, sex serves as the metaphor for these interactions, operating as this method of subtle instruction that teaches what is acceptable and what is taboo.
But there is a breakdown in this communication. The motif of missed connections haunts the story, as the echoes of Sissy’s phone messages linger in Brandon’s quiet thoughts. In fact there doesn’t seem to be much clear communication of any topic in Brandon’s world, and we’re not entirely sure if he notices. Somewhere along the line Brandon missed the memo on shame and the result is his addiction, a detrimental dysfunction that prevents him from functioning properly. He makes excuses for showing up late to work after late nights with strangers. He chats up women in bars and then picks fights with their boyfriends, begging for injury or worse. He is incapable of the basic self maintenance required to sustain a productive existence and he cruelly alienates the one person willing to tell him so — his sister, Sissy.
Sissy is a mess all on her own but as she relates to Brandon she presents an interesting facet to the idea of a cultural communication breakdown. So closely intwined with sex is the idea of relationships — a phenomenon that Brandon admittedly does not comprehend. He cannot (or will not) sustain them, be they out of duty or convenience, romantic or familial. In his world, people exist as props to be used and used by for the near-sighted end of personal satisfaction. This is what he excels at.
As such, Brandon loses sight of the responsibilities and allegiances required of relationships — a brother taking care of a sister, a lover finding intimacy with a partner, an employee respecting workplace boundaries — these notions arise as foreign concepts to Brandon. Even his interactions with Sissy often allude to the potential of unusually intimate moments between them, but as Roger Ebert points out, “McQueen wisely is not specific about the incidents.”
It’s possible that there is no distinct moment of shame because shame is a pervasive, overwhelming event, experienced only in context and unable to exist in isolation. Events rise to a climax (no pun intended) in which Brandon experiences his first out of character moment — grieving and caring for Sissy after a near-death experience leaves her existence precarious. If we were to look at this story in linear terms, this could be the culmination of a shameful event, shirking one’s humanly duties to another to the extent that another person is harmed, but this still doesn’t feel right. There is no singular moment of shame, but this is possibly a moment of redemption.
So does Brandon ever get the message? The closing moments of the film invite us to ask this question as we observe Brandon in a similar situation with the same woman we saw in the opening. Only she is more receptive now. She returns his gazes and smiles playfully but Brandon only stares back. There is a quietness to his eyes now that is hard to read. It could be an inner peace that borders on uncertainty. Or it could be vacancy — the same hollow eyes that looked out upon his world his entire life, watching everything and seeing nothing. McQueen lets us be the judges of whether or not Brandon has learned his lesson, and we can only hope for his own sake that he has.