There are a lot of spoilers in this article.
Talking about “The Affair” in one of my last articles, made me want to talk about a movie I saw again during the lockdown : “Shame” by Steve McQueen. It’s a movie that I’d watched in the cinema in 2011 and which quickly made it into my top 5 favorite movies.
First of all by the way the story is presented: one would think that the story of a man with sexual addictions would be shown in a vulgar and overly provocative way. And no, it’s the opposite. Steve McQueen did something very beautiful.
This movie is a sad beauty indeed, but still a beauty. Most of the shots are breathtaking (the views of New York as if we were there) not to mention the famous travelling shot where we see Brandon (played by the great Michael Fassbender) jogging in the streets of New York.
Already a visual slap in the face.
And the music is just as important : it’s beautifully composed by Harry Escott, and complemented by pieces by Bach performed by Glenn Gould.
It’s just as good as the pictures.
But what I certainly like most about this film is the way it ends: an uncertainty. I love the way some directors let us imagine a sequel to the film we’ve just seen. It’s the famous open ending.
Spoiler alert. Shame tells the story of Brandon, a guy in his thirties living in the Big Apple. He lives an ordinary single life between an apartment and a job.
But he’s got a sex addiction that’s, like, growing heavy. In the first sequence, we see him taking the subway. He begins to exchange glances with a very desirable young woman. There’s a very intense tension between the two of them. One feels however, given the face that the young woman takes, that Brandon’s gaze seems to become a little (too?) insistent. When she’s about to get out of the train, he gets up and stands right behind her. We see a close-up on the woman’s hand: we understand that she’s married. Brandon wants to follow this woman, to have her. But too many people come in the train and he loses sight of her. And most of all, it looks like this woman got scared of Brandon (maybe she changed her mind) and did everything she could to lose him. This scene already says a lot.
Few days later, his sister Sissy (played by the wonderful Carey Mulligan) comes in his apartment without having been invited.
She obviously doesn’t know about her brother’s problems, and that’s going to turn everything upside down. Sissy’s got problems of her own too but we don’t really know about them. There are a lot of unspoken things in this film.
The relationship between Brandon and his sister is really difficult, cold.
Sissy isn’t well, and tries to commit suicide a few minutes before the end of the film. Her brother manages to save her, so we think that what they’ve just been through will cure them, bring them back to reason, but the last sequence sows doubt.
Indeed, one sees Brandon again taking the subway and he sees the young woman of the first sequence in the subway. She looks at him insistently. Although we could think that Brandon’s view of her seems to have changed, we don’t know what will happen next because the movie ends at this moment.
Several scenarios are possible: did the drama he just experienced with his sister change him? Will he stay in his place or will he get up and continue to be what he was by succumbing to the young woman ?
By ending the film on this scene, Steve McQueen plays very well on our imagination and our desires. As in The Affair, we can feel a kind of frustration. Some people would have liked the director to say “it’s like that and not otherwise”. It must be said that we’re far from a clear “happy ending”.
Brandon’s view of this woman is incredibly ambiguous.
The young woman gets up, she’s gonna walk out and he doesn’t take his eyes off her until the end of the movie. He’s certainly hesitant, as we are when we watch this scene. And it makes us understand that every decision can have enormous consequences.
In the two sequels I imagine, one would be bad : Brandon would follow the young woman, would certainly have sex with her, and would go on with his life, as if nothing had happened. The first and last sequence would form a loop and there would be no escape, like it’s all for nothing. In the other sequence, I imagine Brandon would remain seated. The young woman would be disappointed but Brandon would start a new chapter in his life. He would have a lot of work to do on himself but he’d heal eventually.
It’s double or nothing. I want it to be the second version, but would Brandon be able to move on?
Brandon isn’t mean, but he’s a distant, cold character. It’s especially obvious in his relationship with his sister. We can however understand him for that and perceive her as Brandon do because she seems really intrusive. She calls him constantly, crashes at his place, sleeps with his boss in Brandon’s bed (terrible moment by the way)…
But apart from all that, it’s as if Brandon rejects her in his life, certainly because she represents a part of his life that he wants to forget. He disowned her. He also doesn’t want her to find out about his obsession (when she finds out, he throws away all the stuff related to his addiction because he’s ashamed of it). He is verbally aggressive towards her and doesn’t hesitate to tell her a few home truths (yes I’m talking about the couch scene!).
This distance between the two certainly plays a big part in Sissy’s suicide attempt.
Talking about Brandon’s life, we can see that it’s regulated with a certain automatism between work, sleep (in an apartment where the decoration is almost as cold as he is) and sexual intercourse as soon as he can.
He lives like a robot dominated by an addiction.
But as the film progresses, we can (I say “can”, because it’s very subjective) empathize with him. One can easily come to understand that his way of being, his addiction is not a choice but a kind of consequence following a traumatism. The famous sentence “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place” said by Sissy sums it all up.
Of course he could ask for treatment and/or see a therapist, but we can already see that he’s trying as best he can to be a “normal” person and to act as such (this is particularly evident in his attempt to have a relationship with Marianne).
He is trying, that’s for sure.
But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t work and Brandon isn’t well, he sinks into his addiction, he can’t get back on the surface and the last 30 minutes of the movie take us into a real chaos. Sexual intercourse follows one after the other, but it fills a void more than it seems to give him pleasure.
How can we not feel sad for him?
Sissy’s suicide attempt is an upheaval: Brandon becomes aware of everything. Having been so isolated in his own obsession/world, he had not wanted to take into account / or didn’t see his sister’s own distress.
So I think that even though Shame’s ending is open ended, it makes us think a lot that Brandon is going to change, for the better. There’s hope, there’s optimism. Brandon has hit rock bottom but he’s about to bounce back and leave his demons behind. As far as I’m concerned, I like to think that he didn’t get up from his seat when the young lady left the train.