Ingmar Bergman had written and directed back in the 1960’s a film called Shame. It was psychoanalysis of human behaviour during a time of war. The film investigates what shameful acts one is willing to commit when threatened with violence.
What Steve McQueen’s Shame tried to portray is slightly different. There is no war where the action of McQueen’s film takes place. Yet the title suggests that even in the time of peace there is still something we should be ashamed of. Brandon Sullivan, superbly played by Michael Fassbender, is a 30-something man living in contemporary New York City. His life revolves around the office work and sex parties after hours. There isn’t much more than that to his existence, sex seems to be Brandon’s only source of entertainment as suggested by his plainly looking apartment where the porn-filled laptop is the usual point of interest.
Brandon’s existence is disturbed by the arrival of his overly-sensitive sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She wants to create a bond with her brother by forcing him to spend some time with her while she gets her life back on track. The two are the complete opposites; Brandon is very introverted, expressing himself only through sex, while Sissy gets very emotional with everyone around her, becoming extremely vulnerable to pain and suicidal at times. Very early in the story it becomes rather obvious that Brandon will at some point become inevitably influenced by his sister’s behaviour and that will result in some kind of disturbance in his life.
The story of Shame is pretty straight forward and there are very few surprises awaiting those who trusted the film’s PR campaign promising some kind of controversial content. The only outrageous thing about Shame is how blatant McQueen is in imposing his insolent morals on the audience. The film not only disappoints as a story with its cheap rom-com moments and predictable outcomes, but it also angered me as a libertarian. The single-handed assumption that the main character’s frivolous life-style deserves some form of moral retribution is shameful in itself. Why should Brandon be condemned by having lots of sex? The director seems to be unable to answer that question himself. I purposefully recalled Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same title, as his investigation into the emotional power of shame had a psychological foundation. There is no such enquiry done in McQueen’s film. Through the character of Sissy we see Brandon’s shortcomings in the sensitivity department and we are probably to assume his lack of moral conduct which transgresses into sex. Far-fetched assumption indeed!