February 03, 2012


Shame is about sex addiction- that's what you'd get from the opening credits, the crumpled sheets, you might have read reviews or seen the poster with a sultry Carey Mulligan by a microphone or even from the cast list- woman on subway train, hotel lover, cocktail waitress, livechat woman etc. So its a film about sex and you'd be right, that's what it is about- but it isn't so much that its about sex as its about connection. Sex in reality is a form of communication between people- it arises after other forms of communication, talking, dancing etc and its therefore a means to reach out to other people or close them off from you. The real issue about Shame as a film is that its not really about relationships but its definitely about sex. There are two relationships between men and women in the film: one is between a brother and sister, the other is a romantic relationship- but neither of them contain sex, sex is what happens in this film instead of talking rather than as a culmination of a relationship. Its not a means to communicate, its a means to not communicate- the sex addiction of the main character Brandon is not a means for him to talk to women, but a means for him to abstain from talking to women.

What I'm saying seems perverse. When you see the film you'll understand. As I walked out of the film I felt pity for Brandon not envy. In a sense the old Medieval Christian understandings of sex are reflected here in celluloid. Brandon is having sex and lots of it but he isn't talking to any woman with whom he has sex or rather he is talking to them, but not directly. He talks as a means to get a girl into bed- that's not talking, its seduction. Seduction in this film is a means of not communicating. Brandon's sister Sissy suffers from his inability to communicate: one of our first images in the film is of a phone ringing straight to answer phone. Its Sissy and she rings and rings and rings again and again and again. The film is divided into two parts by Sissy's attempts to communicate with Brandon. In part 1, she rings him, then she comes to stay with him, eventually she sleeps with his boss- but nothing will make him actually communicate with her, take her seriously as another human being. Part 2 one can see follow the same trajectory until its finale.

If Brandon has sex to stall communication, is all sex doomed. The film doesn't take that extreme Augustinian position. Brandon does have a putative relationship with a girl called Marie. He takes her out to dinner, they eat and speak to each other and then a couple of days later they go back to a room that he has hired and begin to have sex. The key thing about the relationship with Marie though is that its real- and Brandon is unable to actually follow through on sex with a real woman- not with an anonymous human animal who he [expletive deleted]. This difference between making love and sex is actually quite key to the way that the film represents human sexuality- Brandon can have sex but he cannot make love. He cannot use sex as a means of communicating affection and respect, rather than as a means of masturbation. By the end of the film he is willing to have oral sex from a man in a gay sex club: Brandon doesn't really care about men or being gay, but its the physical stimulus of having an erection and an orgasm that he craves. That darkest of dark places where sexuality becomes merely about the body itself and not a partner is the place which Brandon has reached.

This film is profoundly disturbing- its sad and bleak in equal measure. One of my favourite director in the French tradition is Eric Rohmer. Rohmer's films are all about the conversation between men and women- a conversation that may have a sexual component but doesn't need to have one. Shame is about what happens when that conversation stops: when we simply become the expression of our desires. It is significant that Brandon has no interests- reads no books. That his appartment is clean, covered in white paint and has all the conveniencies of boredom from the wide screen TV to the laptop computer. This is a world that has nothing of interest in it- he has no friends even to lighten the mood, his only 'friend' is his predatory boss who picks up girls with him, picks up his sister indeed. Shame doesn't offer redemption to us, it just offers the anodyne desire- like the Huxley's vision put on celluloid and visualised.