Professor K.C. Jensen
Film & Culture
11 December 2013
The 2011 film Shame, directed by Steve McQueen, takes place in contemporary New York City and depicts the rapid downfall of a successful young advertising executive, Brandon. Despite his charm, good looks, and wealth, Brandon has a sexual addiction that causes him to lead a double life. In this essay I will argue that the film portrays an essentially traditional view of sexuality and its relationship to intimacy. To make this case, I will discuss two of Brandon’s relationships and, in turn, how they support my claim and, last, discuss how an interesting relationship between the diegetical content of the film and the medium of film itself supports my claim.
For the first half of the film, Brandon has only a distant attraction to his coworker, Marianne. When they go out on an expensive date, the audience should be a little surprised, because all of Brandon’s experiences with sexuality up to that point have been either one night stands or viewing pornography online. Indeed, on his way to the date, he happens to see a couple having sex in a high rise, which he calmly watches for a period of time. Despite his obvious strong sexual desire, it also seems as though Brandon has a stronger urge to develop greater intimacy with Marianne. In their conversation, Marianne describes her recent divorce, yet is optimistic about intimate relationships despite her poor fortune. Brandon, in turn, is pessimistic about such relationships despite the fact that he “gave one a try” of four months. While they end the night joking and laughing, there is no sexual culmination for Brandon, which he appears to actually appreciate and enjoy.
Brandon’s hyper sexuality soon comes into conflict with the growing relationship. Upon returning home from his date with Marianne, he begins to watch pornography online and, later, his sister (who is temporarily staying with him) accidentally catches him masturbating in the bathroom. He angrily reacts to this and kicks her out of his house. He then throws out an enormous trove of pornographic magazines, video tapes, and even his computer. The next day, he kisses Marianne at work and he whisks her away to the very same hotel that he had seen the couple the night previous having sex. When Brandon and Marianne begin attempting to have sex, however, Brandon cannot achieve an erection. Humiliated, Marianne shows herself out and Brandon is later depicted having sex with a prostitute in the same room a few hours later.
The relationship between Brandon and Marianne shows how his hyper sexuality subverts his ability to be intimate. In particular, the view of the relationship between sexuality and intimacy being espoused is a traditional one—that is, I take it, that an even balance must be struck between the two and that it is tragic for them to be out of balance. In this case, the view is being espoused by the tragic sense of Brandon’s relationship with Marianne. He clearly likes her—not simply as an object of sexual gratification, but something more. She, too, sees things in him beyond sexual attraction. But, because of his sexual addiction, the intimate feelings he has for Marianne actually make it impossible for him to have a sexual experience with her. The audience would not find this circumstance tragic, however, unless it was against the traditional picture of an even balance between sexuality and intimacy. It is tragic because Brandon finally seeks to have both sexuality and intimacy but, because he is trapped in the former, he can have none of the latter.
The next relationship in the film that espouses a traditional view of the relationship between sexuality and intimacy is the one between Brandon and his sister, Sissy. Though there are mildly themes of incest, I will make this case not by direct analysis of their relationship, but rather by analogy between Brandon’s relationships with women and Sissy’s relationships with men. In particular, while Brandon is disfigured by only being able to relate to people sexually, using intimacy as a prop to get sex, Sissy is disfigured by only being able to relate to people intimately, using sex as a prop to get intimacy.
Sissy shows up unannounced at Brandon’s fancy Manhattan apartment early in the film. It is immediately clear that they have lived very different lives despite being siblings. He has a good career, is well-dressed, plenty of money, and is generally very organized. She, however, has lived a more bohemian life. While nothing of her past is given in great detail, she is a musician who has had a number of failed relationships and life choices. When she joins Brandon to stay with him for a while, it is because her and one of her old lovers have separated. The film means to compare these two in the following way. They are both tragic in the sense that they strongly desire to have fulfilling relationships with the opposite sex but fail for diametrically opposite reasons. In Brandon’s case, as discussed, he fails because of his hyper sexuality and underdeveloped ability for intimacy. In Sissy’s case, she fails because of her overdeveloped sense of intimacy. I will now explain how the film suggests this latter point.
The central plot features Sissy takes part in are as follows. She appears at Brandon’s apartment, is a presence disturbing his privacy and solitary existence (up to and including catching him masturbating as mentioned above), and messes up his house and generally lacks personal boundaries. This last piece is cemented by the sexual relationship that develops between Sissy and Brandon’s boss, who married with children. Sissy meets Brandon’s boss, who is a similar but less successful sexual conniver like Brandon himself, and sleeps with him soon after. But, unlike Brandon, Sissy’s goals are different. Indeed, her constant pestering and loving, dependent attitude toward the boss who only wanted a one night stand disgusts Brandon. This plot feature, i.e., Sissy’s using sex to get intimacy with Brandon’s boss, is the first way the film shows that Sissy’s inability to properly balance sexuality and intimacy is tragic.
The second way the film depicts Sissy’s attitude is by her lack of personal boundaries with Brandon (who, again, has too sharp and settled boundaries). This comes across in two ways. First, as mentioned above, she is unable to take care of Brandon’s apartment in the way that he is accustomed to. Despite seeing that her openness and attitude towards his possessions makes him uncomfortable, she simply does whatever she wants “because they are siblings.” Her tragic need for intimacy also drives the culminating scenes of the film. In these scenes, Brandon has continued to derail after his failed attempt at intimacy with Marianne and subsequently kicking Sissy out of his house. He spends a night attempting to seduce a woman in a bar that has a partner, receiving fellatio in a gay bar, and sleeping with two prostitutes in a brothel. During this time, Sissy calls Brandon and leaves him a message, crying. She says “we’re not bad people; we just come from a bad place.” After Brandon’s night of debauchery, he becomes worried about Sissy because he’s kicked her out. He soon finds her in his bathroom, having attempted suicide. Her suicidal response shows that she is unable to control her need for intimacy and her inability’s tragic end.
The above two pieces of plot have attempted to show that Shame presents a traditional view of the balance between sexuality and intimacy by depicting the lives of two siblings who lack such balance in opposite directions, to tragic results. The film also, however, presents this traditional view using cinematographic techniques. In Linda Williams’ “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” she describes the “success” of a genre like pornography as follows: “it seems to be the case that the success of [pornography] is often measure by the degree to which the audience sensation mimics what is seen on the screen” (4). To explain, compare the depiction of hyper sexuality in Shame to that of drug use in, for instance, Trainspotting (1996). While both films provide a subtle critique of what they depict, there is an additional complication in the case of Shame that the quotation from Williams suggests. That is, in the case of the depiction of drug use, the affective result of what are being depicted remains in the diagetical context of the film—i.e., the audience does not get high from seeing someone get high. In the case of pornography and filmed sexuality, there is transference to the audience. The relative “success” or “failure” of such a genre, then, is the extent to which it succeeds in transferring the depicted affective state to the audience.
Shame, while graphically depicting sexual scenes, does not constitute pornography in the above sense because the primary aim of the depiction is not to titillate or arouse the audience, but rather to illustrate the ultimate hollowness of such titillation. In particular, by seeing Brandon’s inability to generate intimacy that he craves and how painful it is to him, the final scenes of him sleeping with prostitutes, while filmed in a way reminiscent of pornography, is ultimately an incredibly sad scene. Despite representing sex in the same way as a pornographic film, in this film we know about the emotional undercurrents of the character’s life. Any this tragedy subverts the ordinary effect of such depictions. As I have been arguing for, this cinematographic technique subverts the ordinary effects of such depictions in the same direction as it depicts Brandon’s relationships with Marianne and Sissy—in the direction of critiquing a view of loving relationships as exclusively involving sexual activity on the one hand or intimacy on the other. In both cases, the possibility of a loving relationship is undercut to tragic effect.
“Shame (2011 Film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 July 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
“Trainspotting (film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44.4 (1991): 2-13. Print.
Film & Culture Self Assessment
I felt that in taking this course, it has taught me to look deeper into films and their affects on society today and throughout previous decades. I did not think that by enrolling this course that I would learn the impacts that film has had on gender and race. This course has helped develop my critical and analytical skills as applied to film.