To nailing it.
— Toast in a bar, in Shame (Steve McQueen 2011)
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lives alone. He’s proud that he has an apartment in Chelsea, that he earns a living wage in a corporate office with big windows and small rooms. Or at least this is what he tells his sister, by way of condemning her own inability to manage the same. But in Shame, Brandon isn’t defined by what he has as much as by what he is, namely, a sex addict.
He’s not happy about this. That much is clear when, after a lengthy introductory sequence showing Brandon in various positions in bed or on the subway, he walks naked from one room to another in his apartment while his phone message machine plays in the background. His sister’s voice calls out, “Pick up, pick up, pick up… Brandon,” his name uttered just as his penis appears in frame.
So far in the film, Brandon himself has spoken just once, to instruct a prostitute to undress “Slowly,” his cypherish status tinged with brittle rage or maybe just sulky resolution. It’s striking that his sister names him here — and also, you learn eventually, is reduced to a single dimension by her own name, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) — for Brandon is shaped by their relationship, as much as he resists the idea of it. His addiction, it appears, is a function of their damage, whatever it was. “We’re not bad people,” she tells him in another phone message, “We just come from a bad place.”
Brandon’s bad place is everywhere in his seething present (and as in his previous film with director Steve McQueen, Hunger, Fassbender reveals his character’s torment in a series of precisely composed images): he’s watching porn on his laptop (the telltale moaning accentuated by the screen-light on his face), having stand-up sex on an exquisitely shadowed street, jerking off in a men’s room stall at work (the camera watching from above as he cleans the toilet seat), lurking in bars that play Blondie and the Tom Tom Club, disdainful of the awkward flirtations performed by his “perverted” (married) boss, David (James Badge Dale). In each of these moments, repetitive and vaguely upsetting, Brandon appears to work at his self-control, his eyes sometimes watery and his jaw sometimes tight.
He also appears judgmental of others, especially Sissy, who shows up in his apartment unannounced, after — as she points out — he ignores her multiple phone messages. The tensions between them come roaring to the surface when she first appears on screen, that is, when he arrives home to find her in his shower: he enters the bathroom with a baseball bat he’s recovered from his closet, not knowing it’s her and imagining an intruder. As they sputter at one another (“Why would I knock? I fucking live here!” and again, “You fucking scared me!”) and he tosses a towel in her direction, Chic’s “I Want Your Love” rolls on in the background, a record Sissy’s put on her brother’s stereo.
As furious as Brandon is here and elsewhere, as exacting and brutal as he appears, Sissy is his opposite, her nakedness a sign of her desperation rather than aggression. Rootless in various and oh so significant ways (when David asks her, “Where do you live now?”, she sighs, “Kind of all over the place,” going on to reveal that though she last lived in LA, she “can’t even fucking drive,” and so she had to take the bus), Sissy begs her brother to let her stay with him, just for a few days.
Her neediness appalls Brandon: he hears her at night outside his bedroom door, her words tumbling: “Please don’t say no, I love you, I’ll do anything, I don’t have to go out, I don’t even fucking want to go out, I don’t care I don’t want anybody else, I love you.” As the camera cuts from Brandon’s taut expression to her on the phone, you see she’s talking to an ex-in-process, but of course she might as well be begging her brother, or perhaps the world around her, as he embodies it.
Sissy will do anything. As soon as she says it you know she’s in trouble. And when Brandon agrees to let her stay with him and she in turn leaps up onto his back to smother him with abjectly grateful kisses while his face in the foreground turns faintly ugly, you know as well that her trouble is him. As much as Shame keeps focused on Brandon’s surface, as much as this betrays or hides his version of an interior, his sister reflects him.
As Sissy sings in a nightclub (“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today…”), the camera cuts from a long-take close-up on her unspeakably lovely and fragile face to his, tearful and fuming, determined to contain himself. On traipsing over to table where he sits with the loathsome David, she begins confessing, nothing much but still, obviously, sharing herself with David to get to Brandon, to annoy or otherwise reach him. Same again when they all head back to Brandon’s place, where he listens to her laugh and careen with his boss, not quite a rival but still…. And so Brandon dons his sweats and heads out into the night, the camera tracking endlessly with him as he runs and runs and, predictably, ends up nowhere he needs to be.
If Brandon and Sissy are similarly traumatized, their disparate responses suggest not depth of suffering but eerie flatness. By the time Brandon makes an actual date with a coworker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the camera observing them first inside a restaurant (in another long take) and then from the street, through a window, with traffic noise obscuring their increasingly banal conversation (in which he make his case against commitment), you’re not surprised to seem him unable to perform in a subsequent sex scene, where he takes Marianne’s kindness as a condemnation.
Neither is it unexpected that he seeks out punishment, the sort that matters to no one but him, or that Sissy is more and more absent, consigned to haunting her brother — and helping you to understand, or at least see vividly, his pain. And so Sissy is left to signify the “bad place” they’ve come from, to incarnate loss and struggle and void.