I saw a preview of Steve McQueen’s new film ‘Shame’ a few days ago thinking I’d be one of the first at my work to see it. But no, a few of the projectionists had already watched the film after the cinema had closed. Not together, but separately watched it alone in empty cinemas. Now, it does sound pretty amazing to have a cinema all to yourself in the early hours of the morning (although it also sort of sounds like the premise of a horror film), but it also seemed a bit strange. They both said this was a film they would never want to watch with anyone else around. I found this surprising, it was almost like they felt shame just from viewing the film. I knew there was a fair bit of nudity but surely that wouldn’t be enough to illicit such a strong response.
So I watched it. And there were many parts that were beautiful, the film seemed to glow from the screen. It starts with Brandon (Fassbender) waking and staring up blankly from his blue silk sheets. We get a brief window into his life: working hard with toilet breaks to ‘unload’, frequent conquests with anonymous girls in bars and prostitutes, he watches porn over dinner and ignores calls from his sister. But then of course his rhythm is broken. Enter Brandon’s sister, Sissy (Mulligan). She is girl that a lot of us have met before, I know I have. The op shop goddess with dark roots protruding, she has the explosive laugh that cuts through walls and the constant thirst for affection. She moves in with Brandon and his life is thrown of kilter. When he is denied his own space he begins to realise that perhaps he doesn’t have as much control over his sex drive as he thought. Perhaps instead it controls him.
Firstly I want to say what I really loved about this film: the long shots. Punctuating the normal pacing of a feature film are two sequences with long still shots that are quite mesmerising. The first is at the nightclub. Sissy sings a slow and slowly heartbreaking rendition of ‘New York, New York’. The film seems to pause for a moment, just focusing on Brandon and Sissy’s faces. As Sissy sings Brendan eyes begin to well up and it hits you in the pit of your stomach. What has happened in the past to these siblings? We never find out for sure.
The other long still sequence that was just fantastic is the first date between Brandon and Marianne (a lady from his office who he has long being eyeing, played by Nicole Beharie). The whole scene is one long still take. Their back and forth is humorous and awkward and really stands away from the rest of the film. I wish there could have been more of this.
Overall, unfortunately, it seemed like McQueen was trying to shove this feeling of shame down my throat. As Brandon pays a prostitute early in the film we hear almost ridiculously dramatic music, as though he is doing something truly horrifying. This music is there again at the climax as Brendan tries to pick up a mans girlfriend in a bar and eventually ends up in a gay bar. Yes Brendan is obsessed with sex, perhaps even ‘addicted’ (which I actually think could have been explored more) but instead the film just seemed to be preaching sex negativity. That prostitutes, porn and casual sex are things that should make us feel shame. If Brandon is at the mercy of an addiction why is he treated so differently on film to those with other more recognised addictions? Not only does the film seem to showing Brandon’s sexual exploits to be ‘shameful’ but attempting to make the audience feel shame just from baring witness to them.