Subjectivity and Form in “Shame”

Director and writer Steve McQueen really proved his worth in the filmmaking world with this film. He utilizes a shocking ecstasy of emotions to give loneliness and sex an overwhelming appeal.

The film begins with a montage of sorts with Brandon (Michael Fassbender) living his white-blue desaturated lifestyle. He often employs hookers and clearly is not committed to anybody. The only audio heard, besides the sweeping orchestra, is of his sister Sissy—Carey Mulligan—calling everyday and trying to reach out to Brandon.

The scenes juxtapose with Brandon sitting on the subway eyeing down one of the young females on board (who is clearly eyeing him back—they are practically eye fucking). She gets up and stands near him while waiting to get off—clearly showing a wedding ring—Brandon gets up and stands behind her, the subway door opens, the women flees, and Brandon loses her after going up the stairs. Sorry Brandon, maybe next time.

The monotonous actions on screen accompany a powerfully dramatic orchestra alongside a ticking. The deep strings and hums remind me of a dramatic climax reaching its peak, but instead this orchestra plays before we even learn Brandon’s name. Something deeper beyond the surface is happening here.

Subjectivity in a drama is hard to pull off. Some directors create a very compelling or sympathetic character, some create a dramatic lifestyle to which the characters need to escape, but McQueen pulls it off with subjective music and mise-en-scene.

The orchestra only plays for eight minutes at the beginning and another nine minutes at the end. In between, the music that plays is either classical (Brandon) or pop (Sissy). All the music is diegetic, meaning they have a place within the film to which it plays, unlike the orchestra.

The orchestra does not play to the overall tone of the film, but rather plays as the internal drama of Brandon. The film’s style externalizes Brandon’s emotions.

In the beginning, the orchestra plays out while the montage of Brandon’s lifestyle plays out, giving it a sense of dramatic addiction. A life of mindless indulgences is no way to live a healthy life.

The use of mise-en-scene throughout the film helps the subjectivity of Brandon too. The beginning montage begins with static camera movements, washed out, white-blue images, and little to no emotion from Brandon. That is how Brandon sees his life: slow moving, bland, and boring.

The story begins with the arrival of his sister Sissy. Brandon enters his house after having sex with a woman he just met at the bar. He notices that the door is unlocked; somebody broke in, and Brandon hears loud pop rock music playing. He slowly enters, sees nobody, grabs his bat, and heads to the only room in the house with a closed door—the bathroom. He enters with weapon in position, but instead finds his sister showering. They are both startled half to death; Brandon forgot that she has a key to his apartment. He leaves and turns off the music.

The music here is loud and obnoxious, because that is how Brandon hears it. It may not seem that way to Sissy or anyone else, but not if we are viewing the film as Brandon.

This music in a way signifies how Sissy is to Brandon. With his sister around, Brandon needs to reevaluate his destructive lifestyle as well as deal with his sister’s emotional dependence. Brandon is far from a compassionate person. The annoyance of her visit externalizes through the annoyance of the music.

Sissy convinces Brandon to have him come watch her perform at an up-scale club in New York. Brandon brings his work friend and boss David. Sissy performs the saddest possible version of “New York, New York” ever uttered, which forces a tear or two down Brandon’s cheek. Afterwards, Sissy joins them at the table and they begin to drink. Cut to a shot of the three in the cab, and Sissy and David are making out. They all enter Brandon’s apartment and the couple make a B-line towards Brandon’s bedroom. After having a little emotional breakdown in the living room, Brandon goes for a nice jog with classical music playing in his headset.

The classical music that Brandon plays throughout the film shows a certain balance Brandon is trying to achieve. The structure and melody of Bachto Beethoven has given peace to listeners for hundreds of years. Brandon listens to it in order to give himself a little order to his structured lifestyle. In addition, if the overly dramatic orchestra is what is playing in Brandon’s mind, classical music would definitely sooth those sad strings.

This scene in the club is the emotional turning point for Brandon. The shot holds on Sissy’s face for so long because he cannot look away. A quick shot of Brandon shows him getting emotional, probably because he is realizing he is getting emotional, but turns back to Sissy because the performance is so emotionally powerful.


The scene drowns the frame with warm, yellow-orange colors, as opposed to the daily white-blue color grading of Brandon’s life. This is the case because Brandon is literally viewing Sissy in a new light.

The first time we view something in life (anything from an event to a person), we hold it in a more colorful or warmer light than in subsequent viewings. Shame understands and uses this concept brilliantly.

The reason the singing scene is so saturated is because that is how Brandon is viewing the scene. Inversely, the reason the daily activities and lifestyle of Brandon are filled with bland, white-blue colors is because Brandon has gotten so used to seeing his life that way. All the meaning and saturation has fled from the scene, meaning they fled from Brandon’s mind too.

Brandon starts to flirt with a female co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), and eventually takes her on a date. This date is my favorite scene in the film. The scene floods with warm colors—like the singing scene—so it must be something new for Brandon.

More evidence that this dating concept is new is from the extremely long shot to introduce the two at the table. Brandon feels as stiff and trapped in the scene as does he camera. Not even editing can help him out of this. Eventually after they start to make small talk and feel more comfortable, the shot changes.

Another smaller aspect I noticed is the waiter. He may not actually seem that awkward normally, but if we continue with the Brandon subjective view, the awkwardness would make sense because Brandon is not accustomed to fine dining. Because he is not used to it, the waiter’s job would seem a bit off-putting to him, and therefore the audience.

A day or so after the dinner date, Brandon takes Marianne to an apartment so they could have sex. After a bit of foreplay, Brandon is ready to penetrate, except he fails. Right at that moment, Brandon gets off Marianne and sulks.

We learn that Brandon is not able to hold a relationship for longer than a few months, probably due to his shameful life of sexual addiction. He fails to have sex with Marianne because he just cannot be in a formal relationship. Although they are just having sex without commitments, Brandon is scared into interpreting it as feelings, which he cannot retain. He even falls flat on having a relationship with his sister.

Brandon finally tells Sissy that she has to leave because she is too much of a burden for him to handle. After arguing about Sissy sleeping with David (who is married with a kid), Sissy tries to explain that they are the only family they have for each other. They need to stick together. However, Brandon refuses and journeys into his unraveling.

Throughout the night Brandon visits a bar, flirts with a man’s girlfriend, gets punched and kicked around a little, goes to a gay bar, makes out with and gets fellated by a random guy, and to end the night has a three-way with two prostitutes. In one night, he binged and tried to expel all sexual deviancies he could.

There are a countless number of things going on in this ten-minute sequence of events: most notably the musical reprisal of the orchestra, the mise-en-scene going out of control, and the feeling of jouissance being displayed on screen.

The term for a musical part playing again in a film is known as a ritornello (Italian for “little return”). Only in this case it is not so little. The point of the ritornello in film is to signify a new beginning. The new beginning hear can mean that Brandon might actually be learning form this destructive behavior, but that is not the case.

The orchestra does not play again the same way it did in the beginning. Here, the strings play much louder and longer, giving off a piercing shriek. The emotions that Brandon is feeling personifies through the orchestra. The shrieking is due to Brandon practically losing his is mind through sexual indulging.

The mise-en-scene goes out of control just life the music. At the gay club, the red glow images illuminate the scene. The intense color of passion and sexual gratification overtake the darkness of Brandon’s life. The threesome right after bathes the picture with images of skin on skin on skin with piercing lights—like the orchestra.

The intensity of the scene is frighteningly beautiful. It does more than transform Brandon’s emotions, but also the audiences. The feeling of jouissance explains Brandon’s feelings. With no English equivalent, it can be a hard word to explain. It goes along the lines with an intense, almost visceral feeling of sexual or ecstatic gratification. It goes beyond all normal feel-good pleasures and approaches an almost hurts-so-good feeling.

That is how Brandon is feeling. He has fully peaked his sexual, shameful lifestyle in this wild night of events. Along with the orchestra and mise-en-scene, Shame comes as close to displaying jouissance as possible through the medium of film.

That is why this film is so important. What other film displays such an intense feeling of sexual desire and satisfaction? McQueen’s efforts stand second to nobody and deserve praise.

After coming back from the crazy evening-morning, he listens to Sissy’s voicemails and becomes increasingly concerned—he can sense something is wrong. After reaching is apartment, he finds the white angel bathed in blood on the bathroom floor with a slit wrist. She went across not down so Brandon was able to call 911 and get her rushed to a hospital.

Once there, we see that Sissy has many scars with the same pattern of cutting that got her to the hospital in the first place. She has emotional scarring just like Brandon. The most powerful line of the film is spoken by Sissy during her healing, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.” This is writing. This is truth.

The narrative closes open-ended. We do not exactly know whether Brandon will continue with his lifestyle or if Sissy will cut her wrists again. They clearly fall into these cycles of emotional wrought, so why would it not happen again.


One clue might come from the last shots in the film in which Brandon is on the subway and the same girl from the beginning is sitting across from him. We see the ring again—and so does Brandon. She makes the same move by getting up and getting ready to get off next to Brandon. Maybe this time she actually wants him to follow her out, but he does nothing. He is ending, or at least altering his course of action in trying to seek out women. This is just a small step; it is hard to tell if Brandon has changed his ways forever.

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