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  • Andres Benatar

Shame Film Analysis

A Look At The 2011 Movie Directed By Steve McQueen

What is the film Shame about? It may seem like an obtusely posed question when the central subject of sex addiction has undoubtedly triggered enough self-awareness within the framework of the narrative to make it clear to think there is anything beyond just the subject of a complex character’s battle with his vices. But, that’s the mistake often made when looking at any display of addictive behavior. Sex addiction isn’t often portrayed in cinema as viscerally as Steve McQueen’s Shame. When compared to a majority of other films that depict sex addiction, nudity, or just basic sex, Shame respects both the intellectual and emotional maturity of its audience with its well-crafted opening display of a fully nude (penis included) Michael Fassbender casually walking around his apartment as he wakes up to get a glass of water. It may seem normal, and it is, but the fact that the same full-on un-glamorized nudity we all experience would trigger anything other than a feeling of normalcy says a lot about how little maturity and even self-acceptance modern culture has. But Shame is more than just about how immature modern culture is when it feels more akin to cinematic violence as opposed to the natural beauty and fragility human sexuality unveils within each of us.

In a typical Hollywood film, nudity of the sort detailed would’ve been either glamorized or degraded to a more comical approach that hardly devotes the same amount of emotional depth given to addictions involving alcohol or other chemical substances. However, even in the focus of those more commonly used substances, there is still a lack of deep exploration that only a mind as brilliant as Gabor Mate can illustrate when saying “A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors. . . . The wound may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden—but it’s there. As we’ll see, the effects of early stress or adverse experiences directly shape both the psychology and the neurobiology of addiction in the brain.” Shame is most certainly a film about such an ache. The fact that Brenden’s first appearance has his hand resting gently on the lower part of his stomach is a testament to that sentiment.

In the ten years since Shame’s release, it now feels like a rare art-house gem often visited for its quality, but never explored for what potentially lies under the surface. There is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the atmosphere of the film, and although that may seem like an odd thing to say when the film repeatedly demonstrates the numerous ways that Brendan (Michael Fassbender) goes out of his way to satisfy his sex addiction, it also captures its setting with a detail that seems like even the most critically observant audience would miss. In order to have a better grasp of what exactly is going on within a film like Shame, then it’s just as important to look at several elements, and one to start with is that of its central lead, Brendan Sullivan.

Who Is Brendan?

The first image Shame presents is that of a melancholic Brendan lying on his bed staring blankly into the ceiling. In what feels like an eternity, when merely a full minute of the same image playing, Brendan does nothing. He simply lies in bed, and it’s only after the alarm goes off that his eyes begin to take a mild shift. He doesn’t get up right away, and that says something. Naturally, an early morning alarm is the last thing anyone wants to be woken up to. But, because Brenden is already presented to us awake, and with a momentary pause prior to taking action into getting up, that already speaks of some sense of despair lingering in his mind. This mere opening, combined with the tragically laced feeling Harry Escott’s score works well to compose, we’re are made aware that not only does Brendan live alone, but his existence seems both routine and boring, even if the momentary satisfaction his addiction provides does prevent him from fully succumbing to despair. But the fact that he is alone doesn’t just speak about what type of character he is, when the idea of isolation is something that plays out as a major but incredibly subtle theme within the narrative of Shame.

Shame And Post Industrial Era Capitalism

“In the development of both capitalism and communism, as we visualize them in the next fifty or a hundred years, the processes that encourage human alienation will continue.”

- Erica Fromm

For those unfamiliar with Erick Fromm, he was a philosopher, as well as a critic of capitalism. Now, although he commended on the innovative aspects capitalism provided for society in freeing it from the more group-oriented feudalism of medieval society, it doesn’t change the fact that the freedom it provided every individual person with also became a burden few could truly fathom. His book, “Escape From Freedom” explored this concept, and how despite the number of choices an individual is given, the fact that they have that freedom itself works as a double-edged sword. A much simpler way of putting it is that it is the burden of having too many options within the perspective of an individual who is no longer subservient to a much larger group that still works against them. As free as a person in a post-industrial society can feel, having the option to choose between some variation of the workforce or a much bolder entrepreneurial venture can still be unnerving in the sense when weighing the chances of success or failure. This despairing notion creates sufficient anxiety, and it further adds to the fact that the current monetary system we live under is that of a fiat system where the value of money is only depreciating, hence killing and yet giving birth to new options, as well as greater anxieties.

A setting like New York is perfect for a film like Shame. Not only does the size and scope of Manhattan add more to the feeling of isolation that characterizes the suffering characters like Brendan and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) experience, but it adds a layer of intimacy that has often given New York a level of attraction that so many people of various industries can’t help but want to be there for the sake of being there. The sheer beauty of this landmark city has only given greater flare to the myth that anyone could easily become rich as much as they could end up poor in just a matter of a few simple choices. In the end, though, the freedom that comes with such individualistic responsibility alone provides the added bonus of isolation that works well to kill off all the bits that make a person human.

Shame never clarifies as to what Brendan does for a living, or what particular industry he works in. The film doesn’t even pretend it is interesting beyond illustrating that he is an executive and that he lives in a well-fashioned apartment, hence eliminating the idea that he has very massive financial concerns. But it doesn’t necessarily erase the isolation that dominates a good portion of Brenden’s life, both professionally and personally because the fact that when he does get home, he pretty much engages in the same behavior a simple bathroom break at work grants him whenever he has the chance to wack off shows that how empty is life is.

Even when Brenden goes drinking with his work associates, it’s all in the company of his bro-esque boss David (James Badge Dale) who he seems to get along with. But that is merely in the comfort of an employee/worker relationship which doesn’t erase the element of isolation presently within Shame, and the highly metropolitan environment it is set in, forcing everyone into their own isolated corners, whilst wearing the masks that help them fit into this society that only wears the veil of normalized insanity.

When The Mask Comes Off: “New York New York”

It’s amazing how much a song can move a person and how that always boils down to the sound of the theme being composed. But, if you take a good listen to the lyrics, then you get to have a deeper understanding of why that song moved you enough to shed tears. In the case of Shame, Brendan’s tears come at the behest of hearing his sister sissy sing Fred Ebb and John Kander’s “New York New York” at a fancy restaurant gig. The four minutes and fifty-five seconds that define the life of that song heighten the sheer beauty as well as the silently buried pain that begins to ebb out as more focus is given to Brendan’s subtle response to a song where the most heart-wrenching quote from the lyrics, “If I can make it there, I'm gonna make it anywhere, It's up to you, New York, New York” ends what feels like a test of one’s resolve in relation to their past and the future going forward. This is only further supported at one point in the film where an emotionally torn Sissy tells Brendan, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”

Shame is not a film simply about sex addiction. It’s a story about trauma, and trauma rarely comes out on full display. Some instances of trauma can certainly be more obvious than others. But all too often, we judge them as petty emotional squabbles that barely resonate with our own capacity to look carefully and truly contemplate what was at the heart of such pain and anger. In the case of Brendan, sex addiction is merely a form of coping with whatever trauma the film is alluding to coupled with the extreme isolation he has chosen and in a setting that is even more oriented around isolation. As to what exactly happened to Brendan, the film does not spoon-feed or grant us any ease in knowing what exactly makes a man binge in a form of sex addiction that appears both revolting and tragic to watch beyond. The emotional resonance Harry Escott’s music brings to a film that is all about the impact that addiction and self-loathing can have on a person and the people in their lives is enough to say the pain is real, even when it is hidden deep beneath the skin.

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Andres Benatar is resident film expert. You can hear him on the 'Cinema 237' podcast - A podcast for cinephiles.

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