Sitting down in a stiflingly warm, sold out auditorium with fellow audience members averaging 65 years of age to watch Shame (2012), was one of my most affective cinematic experiences of recent years. Driven close to panic several times during the screening, I was desperate for fresh air and water but trapped in the act of viewing. The temperature of the room along with the red wine beforehand may have had a hand in my predicament, but something about the film managed to captivate and disturb me in equal measures.
“The lack of space in the film was somehow spreading out of the screen and it was affecting me in the cinema.”
Unease and uncertainty lingered long after the credits had rolled by. I jumped at the opportunity to watch it again, a chance to understand what had captivated me the first time around. Now with the release of Shame on DVD and Blu-ray, we can return to the life of sex addicted Brandon in this modern classic of art cinema.
“Like classical cinema, art cinema is centrally concerned with characters and their effects on one another. But unlike classical cinema, art cinema presents characters without clearly defined goals or desires.” – Mark Betz, Beyond the Subtitle
Shame follows 30-something city-boy Brandon (Michael Fassbender) as he balances his nondescript career with a hidden sex addiction. His duplicitous lifestyle is disrupted by the sudden arrival of a witness to his behaviour, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who causes everything to fall apart.
My panicked response to the film had nothing to do with its sexual content, nor do I believe that I’m the only one to feel this way. I wasn’t feeling embarrassed seeing a naked man having a piss or a three-way in front of an elderly audience – far from it. There was something more, something underlying, but at first this ‘something’ eluded me. Then, about a quarter of the way through I realised that there had been no establishing shots and very few wide or medium shots. We were close to everything; faces filled the screen, walls were imposing on us from all sides, and I was getting claustrophobic (see Fig. 1). The lack of space in the film was somehow spreading out of the screen and it was affecting me in the cinema. I wanted to get some fresh air because the film wasn’t giving me any. It was at this point that I realised Shame was something special.
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It isn’t just the lack of breathing space in the shots that play with the senses; the soundscape fluctuates from the ominously abstract to the disturbingly disco. Harry Escott leaves the boldest mark with his pieces ‘Brandon’ (which you can listen to above) and ‘Unravelling’. Both appear at the film’s opening and climax respectively. Their melancholy tone promotes pity and de-eroticises the montage of Brandon’s sexual routine – wake up, masturbate, work, masturbate, go home, get a hooker, wake up, repeat. The constant metronome-like tapping sound urges the viewer’s heart rate to keep pace. The combination of the music and the imagery is enough to completely overwhelm you as they both swell in unison.
“Brandon’s point of view guides the narrative; his skewed and unrealistic perception of women defines their presence on screen.”
Moreover, as well as provoking emotional and physical responses from the viewer, the music in Shame also drives the narrative in other ways – as the embodiment of Brandon’s addiction. We often think about addictions as a separate entity driving people to do things they know they shouldn’t, like a little demon stood on your shoulder. The metronomic sounds seem to drive Brandon on; its presence is so strong that it splits the narrative into pieces. This only adds to the sense that Brandon’s addiction is causing him to lose control, as opposed to it being a conscious life choice. Using music in this way, rather than just an emotional guide, is one of the most striking formal expressions of the film.
“[Art films] no longer offer ‘pre-digested material ready for absorption. On the contrary, they present the spectator with raw material (even if it has in fact been heavily worked on) from which he may extract his own film’.” – André Labarthe in Betz, Beyond the Subtitle
Shame offers very little pre-digested material, and its greatest source of raw material is supplied by the representation of women. On the one hand, Brandon has the power to seduce virtually every woman he meets, but on the other, women have complete power over him due to his addiction. Brandon’s point of view guides the narrative; his skewed and unrealistic perception of women defines their presence on-screen. For example, a girl entering his building functions only as an object to be looked at as she walks past, both for Brandon and the viewer. The viewer is forced to either engage, and glean some significance or meaning, or simply switch off.
“We are inside Brandon’s head and thus the film doesn’t allow us to pay much attention to Sissy.”
The appearance of his hidden online playmate, who claims to be the one who really knows what he wants, ensures that the film holds its resonance with its audience. The audience member may not be as sexually active as Brandon, but any internet user can relate this moment to the constant barrage of internet pop-ups that reel off generic, recorded statements from your web browser. What distinguishes our two situations is her familiarity with him. She appears when Sissy opens his laptop, thereby re-engaging the live stream and her performance – a modern deviation from the dancing ballerina in a music box. The girl’s claim to know him is juxtaposed with Sissy’s failed attempts to communicate with Brandon, principally identified by her droves of ignored answer-phone messages.
Brandon’s uniformly distorted relationship with women is only broken by his sister. Whilst all the other women receive just the right amount of attention to please both parties, Sissy suffers at his obliviousness and lack of interest in her problems. Throughout the film we are shown clues about her state of mind and what she will eventually do to herself (see Fig. 2), the first of which arises during Sissy’s entrance. Brandon bursts into his bathroom thinking that there is an intruder only to find her taking a shower. She wears a bracelet that looks remarkably similar to a hospital band; this prompts the audience, if they saw it, to consider if she has been in hospital and why. Later we see her standing on the very edge of a station platform, the camera looking down over her feet and the rails, cueing the audience to consider someone jumping in front of a train. Later still, during Brandon and his boss’s trip to hear Sissy sing, the boss takes hold of her arm and asks what happened to her. The audience is left to presume that he was asking about some unseen scars. Brandon is visibly surprised by this, as if he was unaware of what his sister had been up to.
“The audience are expected to unload their own baggage into the film, to allow it to mess with them or lead them in certain directions.”
All of these moments are easy to miss, but that’s the point. We are inside Brandon’s head and thus the film doesn’t allow us to pay much attention to Sissy. The guilt that overwhelms him when he realises his part in what she has done drives him to the waterfront, perhaps seeking to cleanse himself in the rain. The overt use of vertical lines in this scene (which can be seen in the opening image of this article) communicates his emotional imprisonment to the audience. Some part of me also felt guilty, as if I had been co-conspirator in his plot to ignore her.
“Shame allows an audience to bring their own stories, histories and theories to the film. I’m not surprised this approach comes from an established artist, as in many ways it is the difference between allowing a picture in a gallery to give you your own meaning or listening to the audio-tour telling you what you should think and feel.” – Iain Canning, Producer of Shame
The film’s position as a character study is defined by our inability to truly understand Brandon. This psychologically accurate representation of a character relies on an active spectator who wants to connect with him, and in the process starts to fill in the blanks with their own experiences or beliefs. This process of filling in the blanks can, however, become problematic. An example of this can be found in the viewer’s response to the final climactic montage – the ‘unraveling.’ Failing to pick up a girl, Brandon heads to a gay sex bar where he can get the relief that he craves. This sudden injection of homosexual activity has been declared exploitative by some, as if the film uses the gay bar to show the true depths of his depravity. In contrast to that view, I would argue that the scene functions to show how his addiction can have no sexual orientation, it is purely a physical/psychological desire for sexual pleasure. Either way, this scene certainly displays the complexities around the perception of sex addiction.
With any film that I connect with, I want to hear what my friends and others think of it. Interestingly with Shame, opinion was divided. Some saw it as profound, an important critique of our times, whilst others saw it as vacuous and flat. I think this will always be the case with art cinema. The audience are expected to unload their own baggage into the film, to allow it to mess with them or lead them in certain directions. Shame is no different in this regard. It gets inside your head and leaves you breathless. There is a wealth of interesting aspects to the film that I haven’t explored here; all there’s left to do is go back and watch it again and again.