The most important moment in Steve McQueen’s Shame is one that everybody remembers but nearly everybody misunderstands. Brandon, an impossibly good-looking New Yorker addicted to sex and brooding, is seen silently fucking two beautiful women, his face twisted in an expression of exhaustion, relief, and (perhaps) anguish. The film’s detractors see this as something of a thesis statement, a Big Reveal that doesn’t work. Their reasoning is sound: Because this is directed by Turner Prize-winning visual artist-cum-filmmaker Steve McQueen, the forlorn Harry Escott strings and golden light that bathes Brandon make the moment a tad too “momentous,” a point belabored. And because Brandon is played by Michael Fassbender, we don’t know that it isn’t; the actor embodies his characters so wholly and believably that, as with a real person, we can tell that he’s feeling something even though we can’t tell precisely what it is.
In a way, Fassbender acts too well. A good actor would have expressed something clearly to us in that moment, something that could be understood as the “point” of the scene or film as a whole—say, “Satisfying the needs of his addiction no longer affords me pleasure,” or “My need to indulge causes me to suffer greatly.” Part of what makes Shame a complicated film—and, to me, what makes it a truly great one—is that Fassbender and McQueen disrupt the process by which we normally assign signs simple meanings. Which is to say that at as he begins to climax, Brandon’s face doesn’t clearly express a wholly perceivable emotion that can be understood to be the point of the scene or the film. This hasn’t stopped people, particularly people who dislike the movie, from continuing to assign it cut-and-dry meaning anyway; to them, he’s just sad about being addicted to sex, and if that were the deepest insight the film had to offer, I may not be keen on it either. But Shame is more complicated than that.
What does it signify when Brandon, enamored by a co-worker but fearful of the intimacy pursuing her seems to promise, can’t get it up in her presence? The detractors have it figured out, naturally: Brandon can’t handle a real relationship because he’s scared of a real emotional connection. How trite. And what does it signify when, at the nadir of a desperate sex binge, Brandon wanders into an anonymous den of depravity, cruising for a gay-sex fix? Well, cue the chorus of haters, who know better: Shame thinks queer sex is a personal hell, the very bottom of the barrel. Legitimate concerns, yes, but it isn’t possible to reach those conclusions without making some basic—to me, unfounded—assumptions about the film’s ideological foundation. In fact, I don’t think we can take it for granted that Shame is even about a man suffering because he’s addicted to sex at all, lest we assume that indulging in sex too often is in and of itself ethically or morally corrupt. This is not to say that Shame is actually a celebration of sexual liberation or that Brandon isn’t suffering; his pain is often palpable and the movie isn’t shy about stressing the implications of his lifestyle. But the source of that suffering and pain isn’t necessarily the sex itself, and what constitutes an “addiction” needs to be examined more carefully.
Naysayers feel that the film carries an irredeemably puritanical agenda, advancing the position that promiscuity causes unhappiness and that monogamy is the sole source of redemption. The idea here is that because Brandon suffers as a result of his addiction to sex and his apparent inability to sustain a traditional relationship, the film is therefore arguing against that lifestyle, a cautionary tale about the inherent immorality of Brandon’s unchecked hedonism. This seems bizarre, fundamentally incompatible with the real position advanced by the film: Brandon’s compulsive indulgence in sex is only considered an “addiction” according to our socially constructed perception of normal behavior, and his unhappiness is a direct result of the shame caused by his friction with the world around him. His behavior is only abnormal according to socially prescribed parameters of normality, and in a sense society is constricting his behavior—and his attitudes about that behavior, meaning his self-perception—according to tradition, which is sort of arbitrary and not at all essential or necessary.
This isn’t a film about one man’s addiction to sex, but about the entire institution of sexuality, and it has a lot of interesting things to say about how that institution can bind and pain us unnecessarily. If monogamy comes to be posed as the “stable” alternative to which Brandon finds himself unable to cede, it’s because that’s precisely the binary society more or less forces into accepting wholesale: You either form a long, exclusive relationship with one person and be happy, or you continue to fuck around and be shamed into loneliness and depression. It’s not Brandon’s fault that he rejects the “positive” path; it’s a deeply ingrained social problem that only those two possibilities are coded as “normal” lifestyles, reducing Brandon’s chances for happiness to zero.
This isn’t to say that addiction in general is an illusion, or that alcoholism would be tolerable if only society made it easier for people to drink more often. But it seems to me that sex addiction is unique insofar as our conception of what a “healthy” or “normal” amount of sex is almost entirely dependent on cultural and historical context. Shame would be a very different sort of film had it been made in the 1950s, or if it had been today in France or South Korea or Iran. McQueen has said of Shame that it’s completely “of the moment,” and it’s not hard to see why: It’s a reflection of our unprecedented freedom to access a variety of sexual experiences at any time and with little to no effort, and it deals with the implications of that freedom in a way that’s surprisingly sophisticated and sensitive to the nuances of social change. You don’t need to be a Foucault scholar to understand that the legal freedom to indulge your sexual appetites doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re truly free to do so, and part of what’s interesting about the world Shame depicts is that even though it’s mostly free of external forms of suppression and repression (Brandon isn’t being persecuted by anybody, and he can hire prostitutes or use web chats or go into gay clubs without fear of repercussions), Brandon nevertheless internalizes the repression himself, and that’s why he can no longer totally enjoy the pleasure.
Once you realize that Shame has more to say about life than “the life of a sex addict is tough,” you begin to see how artful it is in its depiction of this reality: The miniature tragedy of an addiction forever unfulfilled is supplanted by the epic tragedy of a social system we can’t really do anything about, and suddenly the scope of this work makes sense. That it elides so much about Brandon and Sissy’s shared history—that no root cause of their pain is revealed to us in flashback or exposition—becomes entirely unimportant, because you realize that when the disease is social rather than personal, a specific cause is superfluous. Why pin the blame on abuse or neglect when the blame is on a system that’s everywhere? Sissy’s suffering is borne by the same framework, after all, and we see her both using her body and being used for it, by men who navigate the same system, bending the same rules. If Brandon’s boss, played with just the right amount of doucheyness by James Badge Dale, seems better adjusted than Brandon even when pursuing pussy at a similar clip, it’s not because he’s a high-functioning addict while Brandon’s flying off the rails. It’s because his boss’s indulgences are coded as socially acceptable, even if they’re just as morally suspect. He cheats on his wife with Brandon’s sister, but an affair is, at least to some degree, tacitly okay; it’s not a transgression in the same way Brandon’s actions are.
When you look at these characters up close, you start to see that the border separating their actions is actually pretty porous, and the division that marks Brandon as deviant and his boss as relatively normal starts to look very arbitrary. Shame wants to recognize that and sit on it for awhile. Same goes for Brandon’s foray into gay sex: Pay attention and you’ll see that it looks like Brandon has been to this particular club before, and his enjoyment of the act itself looks no more or less perfunctory than the sex he indulges in with the opposite gender. Is this the film’s concession to heteronormativity? Or is the film suggesting that Brandon’s sexuality is more vaguely defined than the rigid, clearly defined ones we’re socially scripted to accept? The premise “gay sex is still just sex”—the pleasure derived from it is the same for Brandon, even if he feels less comfortable approaching it openly—is actually quite audacious, because it effaces sexual difference rather than reifying it needlessly. This position isn’t explicated, but Shame clearly wants us to think about these things.
Shame also wants us to think about that face. Is Brandon pained? Has sex stopped being a source of pleasure for him? I don’t think so, at least not exactly. To quote Slavoj Žižek, “in the middle of the most intense sexual act, it is possible for us to all of a sudden disconnect” from ourselves, and that’s the feeling Brandon’s face represents. The source is, as the title suggests, the shame imposed on him by a social environment too rigid to brook deviance, internalized until it hurts. It’s possible to feel both pleasure and pain simultaneously; there’s a reason the French call the orgasm “la petite mort,” or the little death. It’s entirely reasonable to perceive in Shame a feeling of helplessness, and I agree that we’re observing a man who cannot continue living the way that he is even though he feels he must. I just disagree about the reason. The pain comes not from the act, but from the environment in which it’s performed; that there’s no viable alternative makes it tragic.
Steve McQueen is a master stylist, and Shame is a gorgeous film to behold. Its palette, mostly blues and grays, are rich and painterly, and this special edition Blu-ray/DVD combo pack does an admirable job capturing its beauty in high-definition. I noticed a healthy (and lovely) degree of grain that I hadn't spotted on either of my previous theatrical viewings; the grain lends the look of the film some much-needed texture. McQueen favors long takes and deliberately composed close-ups, and the 1080p Blu-ray transfer captures enough detail to keep the eye transfixed.
Even the haters can at least admit that the film sounds outstanding, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track does a stand-up job of making the case. Harry Escott's two moving string pieces sound full and rich, and the few (very well-selected) pop tracks sound great when they briefly appear—especially Chic's "I Want Your Love," which sounds nearly perfect even through Brandon's apartment door. Dialogue comes through loud and clear, and the city's ambient rumblings add some depth in the back channels.
Ostensibly "loaded" with special features, the Blu-ray is heavy on quantity but light on quality. There are four insubstantial featurettes comprised almost entirely of footage from the film, and only one—a Fox TV interview with Michael Fassbender—is even remotely illuminating. Something more than a few two-minute clips and a theatrical trailer would have been appreciated, especially considering how eloquent McQueen seems when he gets the chance to talk shop.
One of last year's best but most woefully misunderstood films, Shame gets a Blu-ray exemplary enough to warrant a second look.