Released in January 2012, Steve McQueen ‘Shame’ was the official selection of the 2011 Toronto and London film festival. I‘d read a lot of positive things about it, in particular the performance of Michael Fassbender. Mesmerizing and tense throughout, long uncut shots drawing you in, with an uneasy tension simmering throughout, Shame certainly didn’t disappoint.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender), is a 30 something, successful senior employee of company, which is never specified, who lives in a modern, but cold and sterile, New York apartment. There is nothing sexy about McQueen’s portrayal of sex addiction, and instead proves hard hitting, powerful, edgy and dark in places. The Guardian sums this up perfectly:
‘Steve McQueen likes long takes: he stays on a image for a lot longer than other directors would, so it feels like you’re forced to be there. For that reason, the sex scenes are difficult to watch. They don’t come across as erotic; they’re more mechanistic: we see a series of grimaces on Brandon’s face, and the faces of the women he has sex with. These people look as if they’re in pain.’
The opening scene paints the perfect picture for the theme and tone of the rest of film, cutting between Brandon intensely, but coldly staring at a woman on the subway (who turns out to be married), with only one thought on his mind, and his apartment where he entertains a call girl. One wank, and two full frontal shots later you jump back onto the subway and get a brief taste of the guilt that travels along with this story.
A woman who you hear in the opening scene leaving estranged messages, turns out to be his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). They share an uneasy sexual tension, and I half expected it to take a slightly darker and dirtier turn. Sissy is the polar opposite of Brandon, emotionally giving and vulnerable, dependent on her brother, and their relationship is volatile and you sense that they share some dark secrets from their past. But with the story not offering any easy answers throughout, offering no root of the causes of Sissy and Brandon’s problems, the audience is left to infer from the spats of anger and uneasy sexual tension……….all signs point towards a dark and sinister crescendo.
His relationship with his sister aside, Brandon’s life may seem on the surface of it appealing and envious to some guys. Why wouldn’t it? Successful at work and loved by his boss by day, and sleeping his way round New York by night. But as we get a deeper insight into his life, we begin to see, his behaviour, his addiction, as a scab covering a wound that has become to shape him. As we scratch away at the scab, we see a wound that runs deep. A virus that has consumed him. Shame.
Shame is a topic rarely talked about. Why would it be? Shame in its very nature is something we want to hide in a box and bury underground. Shame is easily confused with guilt. But guilt is talked about all the time. Guilt is associated with behaviour, I wish I hadn’t done that’, ‘I feel bad for doing that’, and as humans we always talk about guilt, it’s what makes us feel better about what we have done. Guilt is a defence mechanism used to protect ourselves.
But shame is something much deeper. Shame focuses on the self. Shame is that voice in your head reminding you of your biggest insecurities, rearing it’s ugly head just as you’re about to take a risk, put yourself out there, be vulnerable, take a leap of faith. ‘You’re not good enough’, ‘You can’t do that’.
Sex addiction is an illness of intimacy. The shame Brandon demonstrates throughout the film, isn’t so much the shame of the sexual act or sexual pleasure he urns for, it’s the shame not being able to be intimate or develop a relationship with anyone, stemming from the insecurity of thinking he’s not good enough for anyone else.
Not being good enough. Let’s consider that in a more general sense for a minute. Is that sentence not our greatest fear? The one thing that restrains us from putting ourselves out there, taking that risk or simply saying yes? But why? If we quiet down that voice, and look it in the eyes, 99% of the time that voice is our own. We’re our own biggest critic.
‘It is not the critic, who sits there and points out how the doer could have done things better, who counts. The credit goes to the man in the arena, whose face is marred with blood, sweat and tears. When he’s in the arena at best he wins, and at worst he looses, but when he looses he does so daring greatly’
Shame not only highlights the dark and lonely life a sex addict leads but also demonstrates the crippling effect shame can have on someone if they live with it silently, letting that voice in their head dictate how they live their life. Shame is a must see, but a word of warning, it’s defiantly not one to watch with the family.
Silence the voice of shame, and walk into that arena daring greatly.
Brene Brown – Listening to Shame – TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html