In Shame Steve McQueen’s protagonist is degraded to a product of modern consumption, a calculated target of the global sex market. He is born into the century of porn, a medium explored and exploited to its most violent point. This arguable peak of the age of porn is most poignantly reflected in Brandon’s boss’s disbelief at the sheer variety found on Brandon’s confiscated computer. The scene is concluded with a dismissive, yet genuinely taken aback, even humorous “God know what that is”.
In a way that brings to mind Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, Brandon seems trapped in the urban spaces of New York, with its mass produced images of modern architecture, globalised in the same tyrannical way as the sex business. The despairing hopelessness of a globally devoured individual is captured within the anonymity of the city, and the cold formality of the domestic space which Brandon attempts to make his own, but which instead he represses. Existing in one of the world’s many urban hubs of capitalist, career-driven emptiness with all its glamour and shattered relations, Brandon seems to be the only character to have approached any idea of self-realisation, yet he is faced with overwhelming helplessness. The self-realisation comes with the arrival of his tragic alter-ego sister, Sissy. Subtly playing with incestuous relations on a formal level, McQueen never resorts to shock without substance. Sissy clings on to threads of interest, attraction and affection, lusting after the latter with explicit desperation, where Brandon conveys the same longing in a much more defensive, negating and internal manner. What is being read by some as a spicy incestuous undertone is rather a unifying form of a modern human in conflict, a created model person to serve the purpose of the economy of success, dehumanised to represent and deliver, too often helpless.
The helplessness is what is most striking about McQueen’s picture. On both formal and narrative levels it is this that squeals the loudest, blending the motions of success, satisfaction, despair, connection and loneliness into an unidentifiable, indefinable, yet tremendously compelling blur. Ending his protagonist’s fall into the film’s self-acclaimed self-degradation with an orgy scene, McQueen formally reaffirms this position through the camera’s prolonged close-up on intertwined bodies, enhancing the act of sex, while loosening its focus on Brandon’s face. In its repetitive, ferocious physicality, silenced with delicately introduced early organ music, the eroticism becomes cold and mechanical. Towards the end of the sequence, the camera tilts up onto Brandon’s face, in the direction of which he glares, and as the sexual act escapes the frame, the face becomes disembodied from his body, leaving the captivating expression of anguish and shame in its most vulnerable form.
A muse on alienation within modernity and exclusion in the crowd, Shame could be bracketed as simply another skilfully conducted tale, were it not for the vulnerability of the picture, which elevates it above a mere exploration of anything. At the source of masculine power, on the pinnacle of capitalist success, within the sexualised heterosexual context of dominance and triumph, Shame finds vulnerability at its most intimate level. It is a compelling picture amongst the very best in recent years and a step ahead in the cinematic exploration of male sexuality and the scope of identity encompassed within it.
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