The night before watching Shame on TV, I started on Westworld, the HBO series. I loved the set up and the story but after a rather wearying hour of endlessly pert naked actresses of varying levels of famousness it was quite a relief to then see Michael Fassbender in Shame recalibrate the male/female on-screen nudity scales. Yes there are lots of women getting naked in Shame too (he is, after all, a “sex addict”) but it’s mostly him getting naked, and for a very large chunk of the film.
Naked in the bathroom masturbating, naked against a giant plate glass window having sex with a prostitute several floors up in a New York hotel, naked wandering round his apartment, naked in bed having a threesome. Thank god for Michael.
Even by the end I wasn’t sure if the shame of the title was shame at his current behaviour and the way it propelled him, or shame had made him behave that way in the first place because of his childhood. It’s also an ironic title as on a surface level he’s brazen. One of the earliest scenes has Brandon (Fassbender) in the subway going to work. He catches the eye of an attractive married woman who gradually returns his gaze with increasing firmness. But when she gets off the train she gets cold feet and dashes off despite him chasing her.
Brandon, an Irish-American working and living in New York, is utterly obsessed with sex. He’s either thinking about sex, watching porn, interacting with webcam girls online, reading / looking at the pictures in porn magazines, requesting prostitutes for his apartment or chatting up women in bars and then having sex with them on the way home. It’s clear that it is makes him increasingly anguished and that he soon stops getting much pleasure from it, just – at best – relief from what’s driving him.
We are never entirely sure what is driving him though. There’s clearly an odd dynamic between Brandon and his sister – Carey Mulligan as the clingy, lost Sissy, who seems to want Brandon to be a parent and possibly a lover but not really a brother. His relationship with Sissy is like a married couple whose relationship is breaking down but with the added casual viciousness of siblings. Sissy appears unexpectedly in his apartment (he walks in on her having a shower where she’s happy to stand naked in front of him using the small towel he throws her just to dry her face) wanting to stay with him while she tries to make it as a singer in New York.
Watching her sing New York, New York in a bar, he realises she’s talented and he seems surprised.
At first Brandon seems to be enjoying his sex obsession. His life has been pared back to the essentials so he can concentrate on his pursuit of sex – he wears the same outfit to work each day, and his bedroom is bare like a cell. But it’s starting to rule him, and he almost seems to take a sort of desperate pleasure in its destructiveness – at one point as his life is unravelling he tells a woman in a bar in explicit detail what he’d like to do to her in a sort of paean to cunnilingus. When her boyfriend appears, instead of shutting up, his out-loud descriptions become even more vivid, resulting in him being beaten up outside the bar.
And once he finds someone he genuinely likes – his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) – he can’t perform at all. There’s a scene where Brandon and Marianne have left work in the middle of the day to go to a hotel for sex and it’s so cleverly crafted. She leads him, undressing them both, deciding on pace and positions. This is exactly how he’s behaved with various prostitutes, but with Marianne he just can’t.
(There’s a funny moment when she peels her dress off to reveal grey woollen hold-up stockings – “are they vintage?” he asks. Tights and socks are the least sexy thing to take off particularly on film, so this is a good compromise.)
The extent of the damage that life has done to Sissy becomes horrifyingly clear when Brandon finds her covered in blood, he wrists cut. As he holds her while waiting for the ambulance, he’s jerking in pain just as he was in his most recent threesome.
Director Steve McQueen has crafted a film with not a spare scene in it, and it’s a story that is in some ways brutishly nihilistic. Mulligan and Fassbender have terrific chemistry as the broken siblings, each trying to cope in their own ways, each feeling themselves doomed.
Brandon is selfish, self-obsessed and unlikeable. Which makes this a very good film that I don’t want to watch again. He is continually taking the route of quickest relief even if in the long run that path is destroying him. We don’t even know at the end if his encounter with Marianne, and Sissy’s breakdown, have been enough to make him change.
By the way, don’t google cream pie.