I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York…New York.
– New York, New York, John Kander and Fred Ebb
In what is a rarity on film, where the aim these days seems to be to pack in as much as possible, the first ten minutes of Shame are nearly silent, beginning with the camera and Brandon being completely still. You’re unsure if he’s even conscious. This pause, time taken to give us a sense of place and time for the rest of the story, introducing the isolation that will be ever present, is crucial to the tone of the next ninety or so minutes that begin with the swish of curtains.
There’s no denying the intimacy that Shame displays. From the very first frame, the audience is thrown straight into Brandon’s personal life, bearing witness to everything from him walking around his apartment and listening to his answering machine to his descention further into his addiction.
However, just because a film is achingly intimate doesn’t mean it’s about intimacy. The idea of connection is foreign to Brandon, as he looks for a quick fix (he can’t even listen to it), moving from one thing to another instead of forging an actual relationship, something that he is unable to do. If he tries to have sex with intimacy or in a relationship, he can’t. His addiction has ruined his whole life basically, rendering him constantly nervous, unable to communicate with people, show emotion, or have someone lie in his bed in a non-sexual way, as even the littlest thing he hasn’t planned sends him over the edge. He doesn’t touch people, he can’t read their emotions or kiss them.
However, it is evident that he cares about one person, and that is his sister, Sissy. From the outset, it’s evident that not all is right with her, you can see a hospital band on her wrist, you can sense that there is something else lurking beneath, that she is uneasy relief. However, it’s easy to see that he feels a real big brother protective instinct towards her, particularly in the New York, New York scene, which marks the first time he shows any outward emotion, instead of being removed from the social connection that is happening around him, just sitting in silence as others converse. This happens again in one of the film’s closing scenes, where, after an incident involving Sissy, Brandon breaks down for the first time in the whole film, showing real anguish and pain. In roles that require an incredible amount from actors (talk about being comfortable in your own body!), Mulligan and Fassbender are just exceptional. Sissy is longing to be loved, and Brandon is occasionally affectionate, but most of the time, due to his addiction being so all-consuming, he neglects helping her in favour of it.
This is something that makes Shame so extraordinary – for a film about sex addiction, there is not much of a focus on sex. In fact, there aren’t as many sex scenes as you’d anticipate, and if there are, they are incredibly uncomfortable, showing that these are not acts of pleasure, rather they show a desperation, loneliness, a cry for help, simply going through the motions. Sex addiction is something that is mocked too often, instead of being rightfully respected as a serious problem people face that needs help, a gap that Steve McQueen fills, asking the audience to treat it like any other addiction that is depicted in films like Requiem for a Dream. McQueen shows just how easy it is to hide addiction without any suspicion, even behind glass offices and large windows, and how easy people turn a blind eye to cries for help, brushing the person off as a ‘private guy’. It shows how his mind works, how he ‘imagines’ people during the day, and how the girl on the train is appealing to him – she is wearing purple in contrast to the monotonous grey, blue, black, and gaunt, vacant people he sees all around him, promising pleasure. In addition to this, Shame depicts just how much Brandon tries to stop – he throws everything out, purging his life of all material reminders of it – but his mind is unable to, that no matter how hard he tries or hates it, the stopwatch that acts like a heartbeat over the film will urge him to continue, finding more and more dangerous methods of satisfaction, unless someone comes and pulls him out of the ocean he’s drowning in.
This atmosphere is created by an incredibly unintrusive camera, which remains stationary or tracks characters down the street for incredibly long takes, even positioned behind them at times (that overhead shot in the bathroom. Wow). They never interact with the camera, resulting in the feeling of incredibly naturalism, that nothing is being overstated, rather we are just looking into the fish tank (ha) that is Brandon’s life. The ability to hold onto a moment is one of its biggest strengths. For the entire five or so minutes of the now infamous New York, New York scene, the entire film stops, a single take (bar a few shots of Fassbender) close up of Carey Mulligan, who doesn’t once look directly into the camera, rather gazing slightly to the left, further creating the feeling that no camera is present.
Of course, with the talent involved, a film of this caliber is almost natural. Photographed in icy blues and greys, Shame is an observant, knockout piece of mood and emotion, which understands the power of “not saying something”, whether that is observing a meeting from the outside, omitting dialogue in favour of music from a ‘big’ scene, or setting a one take run through an almost tranquil New York City to classical music. This is not a New York often committed to film, one where if it was not said to be the city, the audience wouldn’t know at all. Gone are the bright lights, neon sigs and crowds of people; instead there are bare apartments and an overtone of blue the accompanies every time Brandon is alone, showing just how isolated he truly is.
Like the repetitive phone call and train ride that is returned to many time in the first ten minutes, Shame is about an unbreakable cycle. This is the type of film where there’s no resolution, rather there is only a neverending cycle that, by the end of the film, feels even more hopeless.