January 7, 2012 6 Comments

What is the nature of Shame?  Director Steve McQueen’s film is an emotionally wrenching  journey into the tormented lives of Brandon(Michael Fassbinder) and his sister Sissy(Carey Mulligan), who seem to spiral downward before our very eyes.  The NC-17 rated film refuses us  permission to soften or avert our attention and requires that we travel along without comforting backstory or comic relief.  Brandon is a sex addict, who relentlessly pursues(and seems pursued by) empty, physical relief–he appears incapable of genuine connection and is unable to deal with the appearance of his sweetly troubled younger sister.  The film is shot beautifully, a sharp contrast to its graphic contents.  The acting is wonderful.  There is a song in the film, sung by  Sissy(apparently an aspiring singer) that evokes a flash of emotion in the cool as ice Brandon which is pure movie magic.  The film has been praised and maligned with equal fervor.  Despite the palpable damage of our shamed protagonists, there are whispers of hope in the film for both of them and an unapologetic endorsement of the power of love and connection.  It would be a shame to miss this one…..Jolyn Wagner

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6 Comments to “Shame”
  1. Robert MacDonell says:

    I asked several friends and co-workers if they saw Shame over the Holidays. None did. Most said they didn’t want to see a film about sex addiction. The graphic sexual content that is depicted, and the rest that is implied, certainly earned it the NC-17 rating it received. But it is not only about sex addiction. At its heart it is about shame. Although these topics and the NC-17 rating may not add up to a winning combination at the box office, Shame is a tightly wrought and remarkably good film.

    The main character, Brandon, lives a life without close relationships, sexual or otherwise. In fact, he has elevated avoidance of relationships into a well choreographed routine. His life is so compulsively structured around his sex addiction that a relationship for him can only be an annoying distraction. But he does engage in plenty of sex. His sex life is populated with prostitutes, public sex with women he picks up at bars, fantasies about strangers on subway trains, and internet porn. Although he is gainfully employed, it would appear he is not meaningfully so since he spends a good deal of his working hours surfing internet porn or masturbating in the men’s room.

    The arrival on the scene of his sister, Sissy, is a major disruption in the routine that is Brandon’s life. Her arrival causes him to become more self-conscious about his behaviors. As this self-consciousness causes him to turn his gaze inward, he doesn’t like what he sees. In these moments he experiences shame. Whenever Sissy is around she evokes his anger, contempt and rage which are displacements for his shame.

    A quick glance at a dictionary informs us that shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior; a loss of respect or esteem. Inherently we know this, even without such a precise definition. But understanding the definition of shame doesn’t help us cope with the feelings it evokes in us. Shame is infused with the dread of exposure. Like the exposure Brandon experiences when his internet porn is discovered on his hard-drive at work; or when Sissy accidentally catches him masturbating. Shame wants to hide, and we conspire within ourselves to hide it. To feel shame is to know that we have been seen, judged deficient in whole or in part, and rejected. Judgment and shame by others alienates us from them; and in judging ourselves, we alienate ourselves from our self. This alienation, this loss of connection within and without, creates a gap that can only be bridged by atonement and, later, affirmation.

    Although we are given no prior family history about Brandon and Sissy, we do not need it to see the strain in their relationship. Sissy is desperate for and unsuccessful in her search for a connection with Brandon. Brandon is desperate in his attempts to avoid any connection with her and the weight he knows it will impose on him. Brandon cannot tolerate the expose to another that comes with being in a relationship. Mostly he cannot tolerate the feelings of deficiency and alienation (shame) that he becomes conscious of in the presence of connection to another. So Brandon does everything he can to prevent Sissy from reconnecting with him. He ignores her phone messages, exhibits no positive emotions toward her, and exhibits only avoidance at best and, at worst anger, contempt, rage and violence.

    Different adaptations to the experience of excessive shame couldn’t be portrayed more starkly or in greater contrast than they are in the characters of Brandon and Sissy. Where Brandon has a more inward and withdrawn (schizoid posture) adaptation in this regard, Sissy’s is more outwardly focused and relationship oriented. Consequently, her self-worth is tied-up more in her relationships, how successful she is at keeping connections, and what others think about her (depressive posture); and it is clear her relationships are not going well. Not her relationship with Brandon, or with the other men in her life. This is Sissy’s source of shame. That this sense of shame has been long-standing, is evident in her history of cutting and, ultimately, her attempted suicide.

    Shame is not a topic anyone is drawn to. On the contrary, we shy away from it. We are not comfortable with it in ourselves or in others. It is a hard emotion to bear; and Shame makes us bear it. But if you’re the least bit interested in this subject matter, Shame is worth the effort and the moments of discomfort it imposes. And shame is at the heart of all we experience in this film, which is so aptly titled. It is a very poignant and insightful portrayal of the power and consequences of one of our least well-understood emotions. But don’t look for any definition or clinical explanation of it in the film. They’re not there. Instead, be prepared to experience it, because that’s really the only way it can be understood.

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    I found the following online by a reviewer named Christopher Rosen. He quotes the film’s director, Steve McQueen, on a possible incestuous relationship between Brandon and Sissy. I think that is the origin of their shame and that you thereby mistake effect (how Brandon acts, how Sissy fails in the relationships she craves) for cause. See what you think of the following from Rosen (McQueen in quotes):

    That’s where the debate comes in: after its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, many critics left the film wondering if Brandon (Fassbender) had an inappropriate relationship with his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). The pair have a complicated relationship: Brandon walks in on Sissy while she’s showering; Sissy walks in on Brandon while he’s pleasuring himself. This is to say nothing of a late-night tryst Sissy has with Brandon’s boss that ends with her crawling into bed with her big brother looking for a hug. (The nudity from both Fassbender and Mulligan in ‘Shame’ is striking, which is part of the reason why it will likely earn an NC-17 rating before its Dec. 2 release by Fox Searchlight.) With facts like that, you’d be right to assume something was up — and during a Q&A session after the film’s press screening at the New York Film Festival, McQueen wouldn’t exactly shoot down those suspicions.

    “Obviously, they’re of the opposite sex — brother and sister. Obviously, the background has something to say about their relationship,” said McQueen, who previously directed Fassbender in his breakout role in ‘Hunger.’ “It’s one of those things that’s in the air. When you see something going on but you can’t really put your finger on it. It’s like a wet piece of soup. It’s constantly moving. You can smell but you can’t taste it; you can taste it but you can’t smell it. It’s there but it’s not there. That’s how I wanted it to be — to have that history. The history presents itself in the present in different guises. That’s what I wanted here.”

    “When people come to the cinema and sit down, they’re bringing all their luggage, all their baggage all their history to the cinema and they’re looking at people having conversations and projecting what possibly could have happened with Sissy and Brandon,” McQueen said. “I wanted a situation that was familiar to each individual instead of a long yarn about what happened or what could have happened.”

  3. Robert MacDonell says:


    As alwyas, you make good points and ask thought provoking questions.

    As Steve McQueen mentions in the quote you provide, people come to movies with their own luggage and project all over the characters, speculating about what happened to (or between) them in the past. I couldn’t agree more. Although there could have been incest between Brandon and Sissy in the past, we do not know that.

    In my comments above I purposely stayed away from Brandon’s and Sissy’s history since we do not know it. But you don’t need to know the history to see that the relationship is strained. We can see that in their present actions. We also see behavior indicative of shame.

    You also mention cause versus effect. That’s one of the main dilemmas with shame as an emotion. Is it a cause, or is it an effect; or is it both cause and effect?

    What do you think?

  4. Bruce Russell says:

    I think that a person who is ashamed of himself feels badly about himself because he believes that he lacks characteristics he values, or has ones that he disvalues. Moral shame involves beliefs about moral values, but people can be ashamed of their class, their race, their bodies, the way they talk, the way they look, the hand gestures they make, etc., etc. So I think the cause of shame is a person’s view of his self-worth, broadly construed.

    However, being ashamed can also have effects, in terms of one’s conduct, self-esteem, etc. So I think the cause of shame is a certain self-perception; its effects, conduct and other emotions besides shame.

    This is a preview. I’m going to write on the film Shame, and on the concept, for the next POV.

    By the way, though I quoted McQueen about baggage brought, etc., I’m more of an objectivist about film interpretation than his quote would indicate he is. I think there is always evidence in a film that supports some interpretations better than others…though sometimes there can be ties. What a person brings to a film might explain why HE sees it as XYZ, but that does not mean that his way of seeing it is as good an interpretation as anyone’s about what the film means or is about. There’s a difference between what a person believes, and why, and what he is justified in believing. I actually think there is sufficient evidence in Shame to support the interpretation that Brandon and Sissy had an incestuous relationship when young. More on that in the forthcoming POV!

  5. Robert MacDonell says:


    I like your point above that: “…there is always evidence in a film that supports some interpretations better than others… What a person brings to a film might explain why HE sees it as XYZ, but that does not mean that his way of seeing it is as good an interpretation as anyone’s about what the film means or is about.”

    Indeed there are limits to interpetation. Even in a psychoanalytic consultation, where the client and the analyst are real, and more actually comes to be known over time than in films, there are still limits to interpretation. Even in that context some analyst’s interpretations may be better than others. At least one reason for this is what the analyst brings to the situation in terms of her baggage and how skilled she is at understanding and using that information on behalf of the client. Then there’s also the evidence, what people say and do in that setting.

    I’m probably a little less of an objectivist than you, especially when it comes to understanding interpersonal relations. Interpersonal relations are by their very nature, subjective. Yet, even in these situations interpretations can be made better or worse by being mindful of the evidence, as you suggest, and recognizing the subjective elements and using that knowledge to make better interpretations.

    I’m very much looking forward to your next PHILOSOPHER’S POV.

  6. Bruce Russelll says:

    Thanks, Bob. I’m probably closer on the subjectivism/objectivism scale to you than I am to McQueen! I wonder if I can nudge you closer to my end of the spectrum by making a distinction. “Subjective” has at least two meanings. In one sense, some claim, or judgment, is subjective if it is ABOUT a subject. So saying that someone is happy, sad, ashamed, arrogant, in pain, tired, hungry, etc. are subjective. In another sense, some claim is subjective IF IT’S JUST A MATTER OF OPINION. So people will say that whether some food tastes good, whether different colors go together well, and whether someone is good looking are subjective. By “JUST A MATTER OF OPINION” they either mean that (1) there is no fact of the matter about these things or (2) that even if there is, we can’t know it, or have justified beliefs about what it is (or, of course, both). Things that are subjective in the first sense need not be subjective in the second. There is a fact of the matter about whether someone is happy, ashamed…in pain, hungry,etc., and sometimes we can know what the fact is. Some people think that what is beautiful, and what is right and wrong, is not subjective in the first sense but is in the second. My own view is that right and wrong are NOT subjective in the second sense. It’s just true that torturing babies for the fun of it is wrong, and we know that it is.

    So when you say “interpersonal relations are by their very nature subjective,” you must mean “subjective” in the first sense, that is, as being about a subject. But that does not mean that they are subjective in the second sense, that is, that there is no fact of the matter about those relations, or that we cannot sometimes know what those facts are. Sometimes it’s true that John loves Mary, that Mary does not love John, and we can know that this is true.

    My mantra is Hume’s (and lots of other philosophers): fit your beliefs to the evidence. That applies whether what you are investigating are interpersonal relations or why your car won’t start. Like all of us, analysts might do this well or poorly. If they do it poorly, we might try to explain this in terms of “the baggage” they bring (including unsupported theories) that distorts their assessment of the evidence. Maybe your analyst thinks that you have been unsuccessful in your relations with women because you are afraid of having intimate connections to them. But the best explanation might be that you are self-centered, boorish, and boring (not you, Bob; here “you” means “one”!).

    An example I frequently use in class involves competing explanations of some footprints you observe in the sand at the water’s edge at some beach. One explanation is that someone recently walked there. Another is that some jokesters bought rubber feet at a novelty store, attached them to the ends of two long poles, rented a helicopter, and made the human footprints from the helicopter as it hovered over the beach! In a sense, both hypotheses explain the footprints, but the best explanation (and so the one we should accept) is that someone recently walked along the beach.

    This sort of assessment goes on all the time in science. It’s why we believe that the earth goes around the sun and not the other way around. It goes on all the time in therapy sessions, too, though it is rarely made explicit.

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