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Film / Shame

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"We aren't bad people. We just come from a bad place."

Shame is a 2011 British erotic psychological drama film directed and co-written by Steve McQueen, starring Michael Fassbender (in his second McQueen lead performance after Hunger) and Carey Mulligan.

Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) is a 30-something yuppie New Yorker with a respectable job, a charismatic personality, and a dark secret that controls his life: he suffers from Sex Addiction. As a result, he lives a private life full of porn and fixes from anonymous women, his compulsive desire for physical exchanges as strong as his shunning of emotional intimacy. When his little sister Sissy (Mulligan) shows up unannounced and insists on staying with him, Brandon's carefully cultivated world is thrown off balance, and his life spirals out of control.

The film earned the dreaded NC-17 rating in the United States due to the sheer amount of graphic nudity and sex depicted, though the filmmakers expected it and released it unchanged.

Not to be confused with the 1968 Ingmar Bergman film of the same name (when translated from Swedish).

This film contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Never stated but heavily implied to be the case for Brandon and Sissy. Most notable is the fact that their parents aren't even mentioned in the film at all. In addition, when Marianne asks Brandon about his family, he hesitates for a second before simply saying, "I have a sister." Then there's the page quote.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Played straight by Brandon's boss, but played with in the case of Brandon himself: he's a sex addict who engages in all kinds of unseemly behaviour, but he is filled with self-disgust and self-loathing because of it, and he has no desire to be the way he is.
  • Ambiguous Ending: After dealing with the intense ramifications of his addiction on his life, Brandon encounters the same woman he flirted with on the subway at the start of the film. While she eyes him with interest, Brandon remains hesitant. As she stands to exit at the next station, Brandon remains seated but notably doesn't take his eyes off of her. As the train slows, the film cuts to black, leaving it uncertain as to whether Brandon will control his urges or give into them once more.
  • Bait-and-Switch Suicide: Subverted. Sissy is established to be unstable and impulsive, possibly suffering from borderline personality disorder and routinely engaging in self-destructive behavior. Near the end of the film, Brandon is on a subway which is abruptly stopped owing to an unspecified incident, and it appears that Sissy may have jumped in front of the train — but she hasn't. But when Brandon gets home, he finds that she has slit her wrists. Fortunately, he's not too late to save her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Brandon's issues contribute to Sissy attempting suicide for what is likely not the first time. However, the thought of nearly losing his sister — the only person he has something of a connection with — shakes him to his core. At the very end of the film, Brandon is seen watching the same married woman that he flirted with in the very first scene of the film, only this time the woman initiates the flirt instead of him, and he doesn't really respond to it, indicating that he could be trying to change his habits.
  • Book Ends: The film opens with Brandon wordlessly flirting with an engaged woman on the subway, who reciprocates but then becomes uncomfortable. The film ends on the subway once more with a flipped scenario; the same woman initiates the flirting, and Brandon is uncomfortable.
  • Casanova Wannabe: David spends every waking moment hitting on women, even though he's married with kids, and seems to have a great time doing it even though he's often unsuccessful. Brandon, in contrast, seems to have no problem finding sexual partners, but it brings him virtually no happiness.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: At one point, Sissy interrupts Brandon in the bathroom getting himself off.
  • Contemplative Boss: Subverted by Brandon and one of his prostitutes having sex in this position.
  • Crapsack World: It's implied that the fast-moving life in a city like New York and the social expectations that come with it are partly responsible for Brandon's addiction.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Sissy has a history of tumultuous relationships and self-harm, and it's hinted she has attempted suicide before.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: The files on Brandon's computer hard drive are so obscene, his boss doesn't even suspect him, instead shifting potential blame on an intern.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: One of the most forward examples of Incest Subtext in the film is the scene where Brandon pins Sissy to the couch and yells at her. Due to the fact that he's naked and she's screaming at him to get off and that he's hurting her, the whole thing comes off as eerily similar to a rape.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sissy slits her wrists towards the end of the film, although she survives. It's established earlier that she has scars from previous attempts.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening scene of Brandon considering sleeping with a married woman he doesn't even know. Not only does it show he's a sex addict, but it also hints at the difficulty he has connecting with other people, especially romantically (which is why he fills the void with meaningless sex).
  • Explicit Content: Numerous unfulfilling sex scenes between Brandon and various women, not to mention the big-time porn and masturbation habits, serve to illustrate the character's damaging and compulsive sexual behavior.
  • Extreme Libido: Brandon, who has a sex addiction.
  • Fan Disservice: Lots of nudity and lots of sex, but in every case the context kills the erotica.
  • Foreshadowing / Red Herring:
    • When Sissy first takes the metro with Brandon, she's awfully close to the edge of the platform and Brandon grabs her, prompting her not to do something silly (such as committing suicide). At the end of the movie, Brandon's train gets stopped a few meters before reaching the end of its platform by a person throwing themselves under its wheels (and the train gets evacuated for 'police investigation', with firemen et. al.). We get a very moving sequence in which Brandon realizes his sister probably was under the train, and he rushes to his home, expecting to find a goodbye note from her, but finding her instead. She was attempting suicide, alright, but she had chosen a different, slower method.
    • It's very, very quick, but after Sissy sings at the lounge, when Brandon leaves the table to get drinks (the only moment in the film when we're not with him), David notices the cutting scars on Sissy's arm and asks about them, but she dismissively says that she was "bored when [she] was younger," and he doesn't press the issue. Later, in the hospital, Brandon notices them as well and realizes that she has been suicidal for a long time.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Even for a guy with a high-paying white-collar job, Brandon has a pretty spacious apartment considering he lives in Manhattan.
  • Gay Cruising: After getting beaten up at one nightclub and banned from another, Brandon cruises in a gay bar and makes out with and gets blown by a guy.
  • Grey Rain of Depression: A heavy rain noticeably comes down on Brandon as he breaks down at the thought of almost losing his sister.
  • The Hedonist: Brandon is continuously seeking sexual pleasure.
  • Hollywood Psych: It's debatable whether sex addiction is a real disorder, or at least whether it's really an addiction or just an impulse control problem. The film portrays it more like drug addiction, with Brandon spending large amounts of money on his habit, putting a lot of effort into hiding and denying it, and becoming increasingly desperate when he can't indulge it.
  • Improv: Several scenes were partially or largely ad-libbed, including Brandon and Marianne's date, leading to a realistically awkward conversation.
  • Incest Subtext: Brandon and Sissy's relationship is waaaaaaay open to interpretation.
    • For example: Brandon takes Sissy's scarf and sniffs it after he discovers her in his apartment; they both show little disgust at him seeing her naked; after she catches him masturbating, he pins her down on a couch in nothing but a towel, and it slips off, leaving him naked on top of her (the scene is very reminiscent of Attempted Rape, including Sissy's panicked reaction); she tries to spoon with him in his bed after she's just had sex with his boss; he lovingly (and seemingly not in a brotherly way) watches her perform at a club; and he reacts to her having a sexual relationship with his boss as if he's jealous. Sissy also notes his odd behavior towards her in dialogue:
      Sissy: It's like I'm always making you angry, and I don't know why.
    • The film gives almost no backstory on the characters, leaving it to the audience's imagination to fill it in. The question if actual incest happened, or Abusive Parents are to blame for how screwed up the siblings are, has caused flame wars in even more distinguished film forums. Are they, perhaps, Not Blood Siblings?
    • More evidence comes in their argument scene. Despite that they are in a heated exchange of words, the scene starts with Sissy resting her head on Brandon's shoulder. At some points, their faces are very close each other to the point that they could've just kissed anytime if they ever wanted it. Really, if they weren't siblings, the scene can be very easily mistaken as an argument between a couple with an Awful Wedded Life.
  • It's All Junk: Brandon has a breakdown after Sissy finds out about the extent of his porn addiction, including paying for camgirls, and throws out all his porn (including his laptop). It doesn't seem to help, because he's back out trawling for sex with prostitutes soon after.
  • It's Not Porn, It's Art: McQueen and the producers decided not to fight or appeal the NC-17 rating.
  • Joisey: Where Brandon and Sissy grew up.
  • Jump Scare: When Brandon wants Sissy to get out of his room, he quietly but insistently asks a few times before resorting to terrifying her (and the audience) by suddenly screaming at her.
  • Leave the Camera Running: McQueen loves these; multiple scenes (Brandon jogging, Brandon and Marianne's date, Sissy's performance, Brandon's and Sissy's argument, etc.) are shot in one long take.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Brandon has no problem achieving arousal for the most part - except when in emotionally intimate circumstances, as his second "date" with Marianne demonstrates.
  • Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: We see Brandon engaging in this a few times. We get the impression he does it frequently at work.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: And how! The very beginning of the film features extended looks at Fassbender's not-so-little soldier.
  • Mood Whiplash: Used a few times, most strikingly after Sissy catches Brandon having a private moment and thinks he's kidding when he angrily confronts her, only to become extremely scared and upset when she realizes he's not. Made all the more powerful because it's in one take.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits: Brandon is less than pleased about Sissy having sex with his boss. Whether it's because of this trope, because his boss is married with children or something else entirely is open to debate.
  • Neat Freak: Brandon is rather compulsive about cleaning himself.
  • Noodle Incident: Whatever happened in Brandon and Sissy's childhood is ambiguous, but it was traumatic, as it leaves Brandon an almost emotionless sex addict, and Sissy a suicidal wreck.
  • The Oner: There's actually a fair number of long takes. The three most notable are when Brandon jogs along 31st St. at night while Sissy and David are hooking up in his apartment, Brandon and Marianne's date and the scene with him and Sissy on the couch.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Downplayed; both Fassbender and Mulligan do a game job with their sort-of Jersey accents, but if you listen closely you can hear him clip his ending consonants like they're German, and she lets loose a few vowel sounds more appropriate to England.
  • Platonic Prostitution: Played with - Brandon hires numerous prostitutes for sex, but at times seems to be trying to form some sort of emotional connection with them, perhaps just out of sheer desperation. They always politely decline.
  • The Pornomancer: Brandon throws himself at women almost as frequently as they throw themselves at him.
  • Porn Stash: Brandon's office computer is full to the brim with porn. There's plenty in his apartment as well, which he disposes of when Sissy shows up.
  • Promiscuity After Rape: It is never explicitly stated that Brandon or Sissy have been sexually abused, but it is strongly implied that both have a history of sexual trauma and that their current behaviors are maladaptive coping techniques.
  • R-Rated Opening: One of the first scenes has Brandon walking around his apartment naked, so...
  • The Reveal: For about the first half of the film, the audience is being led to believe that Sissy is an ex of Brandon's until he tells someone at work that his sister is staying with him.
  • Romance and Sexuality Separation: Brandon appears to have difficulty performing with women he is emotionally intimate with.
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Subverted. Though Brandon has no religious conditioning to view extramarital sex as sinful or forbidden, it is generally compulsive and emotionally unhealthy for him. And he's pretty much always horny. The trope is also inverted when Brandon finally beds a woman to whom he has an emotional connection and can't get it up.
  • Sexual Karma: Played With. The protagonist Brandon is a sex addict, masturbating and browsing porn in the time between screwing random women, and sometimes even during said screwing. But when he's finally able to have sex with someone he actually has an emotional connection with, he can't get it up. Commitment is a turnoff to him, so he remains trapped in his shallow lifestyle.
  • Shameless Fanservice Girl: Brandon walks in on Sissy in the shower and he (and the audience) sees all of her. She doesn't seem to care very much, though he does.
  • Single Tear: When Sissy sings in the nightclub, a perfect single tear rolls down Brandon's face.
  • Situational Sexuality: Brandon seems to have no problem sleeping with men as well as women if the circumstances demand it.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Lots, such as when Brandon listens to gentle piano music when out running while Sissy and David have sex on his bed, and similar piano plays non-diegetically when he discovers Sissy bleeding out.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: Likely invoked; when Brandon finds out Sissy has let herself into his apartment, his record player is playing Chic's "I Want Your Love". Considering her trying desperately to get him to reciprocate in their relationship (read: wanting his love) is what defines their dynamic, it's not a random choice of needle drop for her to use. There is also, however, the extra aspect of their dynamic unwittingly implied by a sister playing a song for her brother explicitly written about two lovers.
  • There Are No Therapists: And boy, are they needed.
  • Three-Way Sex: Brandon has this with two prostitutes while a tearful voicemail from Sissy plays over it, to jarring effect.
  • Wall Bang Her: As he's out in the night, Brandon sees a couple engaged in this against a large glass window for the world to see, and it seems to symbolize a sexual freedom that he desires to attain. He ends up doing this with a prostitute later.
  • Walk and Talk: Brandon and Marianne after their date.