Warning: there are a lot of spoilers in this article.
Talking about “The Affair” made me want to talk about a film I rewatched during the lockdown: Steve McQueen’s “Shame”. It’s a film I watched in the cinema in 2011 and it quickly made it into my top 5 favourite films.
One would think that the story of a man with sexual addictions would be shown in a vulgar and provocative way. But no, it’s the opposite. Steve McQueen has made something very beautiful.
This film is sadly beautiful, but beautiful nonetheless. Most of the shots are breathtaking, like the famous tracking shot where we see Brandon (played by the great Michael Fassbender) jogging through the streets of New York.
A visual slap in the face.
The music is equally 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 images.
But what I certainly like most about this film is the way it ends: with 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 thirty-something living in the Big Apple. He lives an ordinary single life between a flat and a job.
But he has an addiction to sex that becomes heavy. In the first sequence, we see him taking the underground. He begins to exchange glances with a very desirable young woman. There’s a very intense tension between them. However, from the look on the young woman’s face, we sense that Brandon’s gaze seems to become too insistent. When she’s about to get off the train, he gets up and stands right behind her. We see a close-up of the woman’s hand: we understand that she’s married. Brandon wants to follow and have this woman. But too many people enter the train and he loses sight of her. It seems that this woman was afraid of Brandon (maybe she changed her mind) and did everything to lose him. This scene already says a lot.
A few days later, his sister Sissy (played by the wonderful Carey Mulligan) arrives at his flat uninvited.
She is obviously unaware of her brother’s problems, and this is going to turn everything upside down. Sissy also has her own problems, but we don’t really know about them. There is a lot left unsaid 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 have just experienced will bring them back to their senses, but the last sequence sows doubt.
We see Brandon taking the underground again and he sees the young woman from the first sequence. She is staring at him. Although we can think that Brandon’s gaze on her seems to have changed, we don’t know what will happen next because the film stops at this moment.
Several scenarios are possible: has the drama he has just experienced with his sister changed 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 in this way, Steve McQueen plays very well on our imagination and our desires. As in The Affair, one can feel a kind of frustration. Some people would have liked the director to say “this is the way it is”. We’re far from a clear “happy ending”.
Brandon’s gaze on this woman is incredibly ambiguous.
The young woman gets up, she’s about to leave and he doesn’t take his eyes off her until the end of the film. He’s certainly hesitant, as we are when we watch this scene. And it makes us understand that every decision can have huge consequences.
In the two sequels I imagine, one would be bad: Brandon would follow the young woman, certainly have sex with her, and go on with his life, as if nothing had happened. The first and the last sequence would be a loop and there would be no way out, as if it had all been 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 would eventually heal.
It’s double or nothing. I want it to be the second version, but would Brandon be able to move on?
Brandon isn’t a bad guy, but he’s a cold and distant character. This is particularly evident in his relationship with his sister. However, we can understand him for this and perceive her as Brandon because she seems really invasive. She calls him constantly, crashes at his place, sleeps with his boss in Brandon’s bed…
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 also doesn’t want her to find out about his obsession (when she does, he throws away all the stuff related to his addiction because he is ashamed of it). He is verbally aggressive towards her and doesn’t hesitate to tell her some truths.
This distance between the two certainly plays a big part in Sissy’s suicide attempt.
Concerning Brandon’s life, we see that it is regulated by a certain automatism between work, sleep (in a flat where the decoration is almost as cold as he is) and sex whenever 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) empathise with him. We can come to understand that his way of being and his addiction are not a choice but a kind of consequence following a trauma. Sissy’s line “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place” sums it up.
Of course, he could seek treatment and/or see a therapist, but we can already see that he’s trying hard to be a “normal” person and to act like one (this is particularly evident in his attempt to have a relationship with Marianne).
He tries, 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 to the surface and the last part of the film takes us into a real mess. The sexual encounters follow one another, but they fill an emptiness more than they seem to give him pleasure.
How can we not feel sorry for him?
Sissy’s suicide attempt is an upheaval: Brandon becomes aware of everything. Having been so isolated in his own obsession, he had not wanted to take into account / or had not seen his sister’s own distress.
So I think that even though the ending of Shame is open-ended, it makes us think that Brandon will 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. I like to think that he didn’t get up from his seat when the young lady left the train.