Director Steve McQueen Presents a Controversial Anti-hero in “Shame”

Elizabeth Pyjov


Some of the best movies have no villain  or hero. Director Steve McQueen’s main character Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender in what ought to be an Oscar-winning performance in “Shame,” is neither. This kind of ambiguity greatly enriches the film. Several classics achieve a similar effect, including Guido in Fellini's “8 ½,” and, more recently Johnny in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.”  When there are characters in a film that audiences can neither fully look up to nor completely condemn, cinema really starts to resemble life rather than our construction of it.


As those two labels, hero and victim, interact with one another within the main character over the course of these films, the films remain unresolved, and thus lay the puzzle of their entanglements on us as the audience to think about and work out. This challenge, as the challenge presented by “Shame,” is thought-provoking, but far from simple.


McQueen’s new film is executed to a startling perfection. It reveals deeper truths about self-control and a lack hereof, and how self-control on the surface could be used to conceal a certain chaos and desperation within. The film shows in a remarkably vivid way what it is like to be lost and the desire to block out feelings. The film focuses on New York City as the perfect place to have and cover up all kinds of disturbing experiences, catering to both the pleasure and the privacy of the tortured individual. It also presents to the last detail the kind of show people put on for the opposite sex. What is perhaps most special to the film is how directly “Shame” presents its unsettling material, unapologetically putting the audience through a physical and psychological experience of addiction most of us can relate to, but many have not encountered.


“Shame” has been widely criticized for its combination of provocative material and a chilly, uninvolved style. Not only is the main character cold, but there is a similar crispness to the visual direction. McQueen offers no moral support or guidance through the sexual  and emotional maze we navigate with Brandon. However, this not necessarily a weakness of the film, but rather a strength. Sometimes the best way to endow a work with an ethical quality is not by example but by an excess of the opposite. The redemptive movies are often the ones in whose protagonists we see a flicker of ourselves and -- don’t want to see ourselves. It is a recognition that reveals the secret discomforts we strive vehemently to ignore. Thus McQueen shows us a main character we would prefer not to identify with, and this feeling can lead us to consciously want to widen the gap between ourselves and the person on the screen, through our words and actions, after we exit the theater. In this way, Shame is a call for compassion and sincerity done in a way that is more effective than a lecture or advice.


Other critics have been complaining that the film, rated NC-17, contains too much graphic sexual content and not enough emphasis on principles and analysis. Films in Review renounced it as “something of a dirty date that leaves you wondering what went wrong” while the New York Times states that McQueen is “dwelling on the facts of behavior and bodily experience”  and  The Phoenix notes that the director “doesn't go much below the surface in analyzing the obsessive, doomed conduct of his characters.” But it’s important to get to know the extremes by seeing them displayed in all their physicality and then confront them ourselves through the lens of our own moral compass, not one that is spoon-fed by a director, in order to gain more than a superficial understanding of the issue at hand.  The graphic side to the film gives audiences a better sense of what one may find when testing those boundaries or approaching the same brink. In “Shame” we are shown the full picture of a man’s actions and lifestyle, and are left to examine precisely what went wrong. A film that inspires us to reflect on these issues is taking the right approach.


By showing graphic material in a direct, rather insensitive and nonjudgmental way, the film becomes a call to acting with kindness, to loving lovers, to treating family members with care. Without these elements, the protagonist’s life falls apart completely. It seems that Brandon is using casual sex in an attempt to establish a sense of self-worth. Ultimately, “Shame” demonstrates how important cultivating that same feeling of self-worth is beyond the confines of other people, and how important it is to exist as a full-fledged human being even without others’ admiration, without sex, without money, and without any external source of affirmation. The frigidity of this film leaves us striving to be all the warmer, as we hope for the same transformation in Brandon himself.  We would like to see him move a little bit further from the villain he becomes at times and closer to the hero we would like to imagine.


Author Bio:

Elizabeth Pyjov is a former Arts Editor of the Harvard Crimson, where she wrote Arts, News, Travel and Opinion pieces. 

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