I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Shame, a movie I think I admire more than I like. Other critics will and have said lots of things about Michael Fassbender’s performance, which is marvelously tormented (it struck me that one of the reasons he’s so powerful and unnerving in roles like this, or as Magneto in X-Men: First Class is that when he cries or gets angry or upset, his mouth tends to curve up in a rictus of a smile). For a man who spends much of his time pursuing an act that’s meant to be an expression of the life force, he looks frighteningly close to death. And there’s a debate to be had, I think, about whether Steve McQueen should have explored the roots of Brandon’s addiction, particularly the constantly-implied but never-specified “bad place” that Brandon and his sister Sissy come from. But I found myself struck more by things around the movie’s margins than at its center, by emotions other than the core of Brandon’s torment.
One thing I appreciated was the decision to have Brandon sleep with women of color as well as white women. There might have been something disturbing about depicting a very attractive white man using black and Asian women as disposable partners. But nobody ever exactly follows up with him — in some cases, because they’re pros, in some cases because he’s as disposable to them as they are to him. The most genuinely erotic sex scene in the movie happens between Brandon and his coworker, Marianne, an African-American woman he’s actually gone on a date with, and after an awkward beginning, seems to have made an emotional and intellectual connection with. Ultimately, he can’t bring himself to sleep with her. But I still appreciate that McQueen makes a non-white woman the most multi-dimensionally attractive person in the movie.
And while the Shame is about the fundamentally unsatisfying way Brandon sees the world, it’s also delicately about what it means to be the object of sexual desire. The opening sequence, in which he and a woman on a subway train trade increasingly intense glances, certainly communicates the ferocity of Brandon’s hunger. But it’s also a beautiful articulation of how it feels to be the object of that attention, in a way that respects ambiguity. In their initial encounter, the woman is first embarrassed, then reciprocates. His attention is both flattering and overwhelming, and there’s something honest in that lack of clarity. But when Brandon comes up behind her as she stands for her stop, chasing her through the commuter-clogged station, his behavior shifts from an implication of intimacy to frightening. There’s a difference between wanting to connect with someone and wanting to devour them.
Both Brandon’s failed relationship with Marianne and these subway encounters elevate the simple act of communication into an incomprehensible mystery. We can feel his fear. And even though Brandon is more sexually successful than his boss, a brutal caricature of a wannabe pick-up artist with a family at home, even all the practice he’s had doesn’t give him a fail-proof approach, or universally good instincts in selecting his partners. I don’t think a sequence where Brandon has a sexual encounter in a gay bar is actually as intense a symbol of his degradation as McQueen suggests it is. But it’s certainly testament to the persistent spur of his addiction, coming after he’s been beaten up by one of the boyfriends of a woman he’s trying to pick up, and before a night-ending threesome. Brandon may be more familiar with the varieties of human sexuality than a non-addict, but it remains a mysterious and unpredictable force for him.
And perhaps for us. I may have mixed feelings about the decision to leave the reason Brandon and Sissy’s boundaries are so disastrously degraded obscure. But I appreciate the decision not to pose a solution for Brandon’s addiction, or a model of functional sexual relationships. Is it a bad thing for the attractive blonde from the bar to have sex with Brandon under a bridge under any circumstances, or only unfortunate that it’s so easy for him to get his fixes? Shame doesn’t pretend to know, and doesn’t demand that we know either. Engagement is the only thing it asks for, whether of Brandon or of us.