There are three main themes in Shame. First, most obviously, sex, and lots of it. Brandon is a successful businessman in Manhattan and he has sex with a lot of people. He has random encounters, some regular partners, some favorite prostitutes, women he sees online, and huge amounts of pornography. He can't cope with emotional closeness with other people and he says that his longest relationship was just 4 months long. While the word addiction isn't used in the movie itself, many reviewers and director Steve McQueen have said that it is largely about sexual addiction. That's a label that isn't very helpful, but what makes the movie more interesting is its exploration of its second theme, the relationship between Brandon and his sister Sissy, who moves into his apartment. She is obviously a mess: she has scars on her wrist where she has cut herself many times, and she does not have a job or an apartment. Her emotions are all over the place, and she pleads with men to care for her. Brandon is repelled by his sister and would like nothing to do with her. But it becomes increasingly clear that he is every bit as troubled as she is. He can't control his own behavior and he is so emotionally closed off that is desperately lonely. It's also apparent that Brandon and Sissy have a very troubled past together in their family life, which they never talk about. He is fantastically angry with her, yet eventually he has to admit to himself that he also cares about her. Their relationship achieves a level of rawness that is unusual in movies. These emotional issues are starkly portrayed, and there's a despair here that is reminiscent of the movies of Ingmar Bergmann. Both Sissy and Brandon seem very prone to self-destruction. The movie is shot largely inside or at night. The music telegraphs the emotions in a rather heavy handed way, but it works. It is a remarkable depiction of sexual excess, misery and sibling relationships. Michael Fassbender's portrayal of Brendan's quiet, repressed but savage emotional turmoil is memorable, and Carey Mulligan's Sissy is loud and unable to respect boundaries.
The third theme of the movie is Manhattan itself, and this is probably my favorite. We see the subway, apartments, hotel rooms, night clubs, offices, bars and streets, nearly always at night. It is a vivid portrait of the city, showing it in ways that are unusual for the movies. In contrast to the dramatic and dispassionate portrayal of sex and anger, the city comes across as full of beauty and vibrancy, although we also see its seedy side. It makes the film even more unusual.
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York