Brother Guilt and Sister Shame

Shame, Steve McQueen’s film about a damaged sibling relationship, is a nightmarish, laugh-free black comedy about neurosis and dysfunction.

Shame, Steve McQueen’s film about a damaged sibling relationship, is a nightmarish, laugh-free black comedy about neurosis and dysfunction.


Shame, Steve McQueen’s film about a damaged sibling relationship, co-written with Abi Morgan, is a nightmarish, laugh-free black comedy about neurosis and dysfunction. It has the same icy, unwavering stare as his previous work, Hunger, about the Irish republican hunger-striker Bobby Sands, with the same degree-zero long camera takes.

Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon, a sleek young executive in New York, and a single guy who is fanatically, even ecstatically, addicted to casual sex, prostitutes and porn. It’s an addiction that is strip-mining his personality of all recognisable human impulses. He is living in a hell that he has furnished and maintained himself, but it was made by someone else. A clue to this lies in his desperately unhappy screw-up of a sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan. To Brandon’s dismay, Sissy announces she is going to be crashing at his bachelor pad while following her dream of being a singer, cramping his style and annoying the hell out of him.

Somehow Sissy and Brandon are always catching each other naked: he stumbles on her in the shower and she blunders into the bathroom while he is jerking off. Sissy is actually rather less damaged than he is, and McQueen allows us to create our own speculation about the siblings’ background. As one scene follows the next, theories will run though the audience’s mind. Sissy drops one tiny, ambiguous hint at the very end.

Brandon is a sex connoisseur and sex sociopath, an obsessive-compulsive seducer. He takes the subway and brazenly catches women’s glances in the carriages; we are introduced to him through a scene that is coolly controlled and modulated. In the office, his boss delicately tells him his porn-clogged hard drive has been removed to be “cleaned up” and Brandon repairs to the office men’s room, where he ferociously cleans germs from the lavatory seat with toilet paper.

It is Brandon’s unspeakable boss Dave (James Badge Dale) who ushers in the movie’s most agonising scene. Dave is a married man with a family out in the suburbs, but Brandon has to go out with him in the evenings as Dave trawls the city’s bars to pick up women, though all his targets clearly find Brandon far more attractive. One night, Brandon takes Dave to see Sissy sing at a bar, and it is a revelation.

The song clearly speaks of her yearning to escape and Brandon is profoundly affected.

Yet, after this performance appears miraculously to have healed her self-esteem, poor, lonely Sissy comes eagerly over to where Brandon and his predatory, sleazeball-philanderer boss are sitting. Having seen Dave’s shame in failing with hot women the night before, Brandon must now be complicit in this new unfolding situation, and is ashamed on his and her behalf; it all leads to a hypnotically awful taxi ride back to their place. It would be funny if it wasn’t so clenched with humiliation and swallowed rage.

Intimate conversation

When Brandon attempts a dinner date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie) — a beautiful co-worker in his office — it is an uncomfortably real transcription of a supposedly romantic evening: another long, static camera shot. It starts with stilted conversation, ends with a spark, but is followed by catastrophe. McQueen shows how Brandon has no way of communicating except through sex, and can’t have sex with someone he genuinely likes. Tellingly, in bed, he asks Marianne if her underwear is “vintage” — precisely the term Sissy had used to describe her wacky hat. McQueen allows us to register the verbal association almost subliminally: the vital sheen of porn indifference Brandon needs is killed by the fatal spark of gentleness and intimacy.

Shame is an interesting title: Brandon feels spasms of disgust and self-pity more than shame, but the point is rather that shame lies deeply buried under all of this. Brandon and Sissy live in an underworld melodrama of fear — not so much Crime and Punishment as Addiction and Humiliation. With tremendous performances from Fassbender and Mulligan, and such superb technique from McQueen, this is a horrible inferno. — © Guardian News & Media 2012

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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