A bruised urban womb, livid with solitude and alienation: New York, phallocratic capital of the New World. Venting his inner but tangible malaise is Brandon, a successful man in his thirties whose days are tormented by an unforgiving addiction. What appears as an accomplished individual is in reality a hunted prey, elegantly managing his superficial pretence while the bowels of the city hold him hostage to his own fixation. Whether performed lived, alone in a toilette or online, sex is for Brandon invariably glacial and nihilistic, a genital coercion triggered by emotional frigidity. Sissy, his sister, on the contrary is overwhelmed by her disturbed emotional life and once she crashes into his apartment things will never be the same. The minimal functionalism of Brandon’s aseptic apartment now welcomes the dysfunctional dregs of a fractured family whose bonds are just obstacles on his walk of shame.
In Hunger a captive man would enlist his carnality at the service of liberation, in Shame a free man is imprisoned by his own body and neurotic sexuality. Iron discipline chained the Irish militant, addiction controls the free man; inner policing as opposed to repression, these are the themes asserting the topical relevance of Steve McQueen’s second feature.
The film explores with observant detachment the exasperation of needs in the age of viral marketing and compulsory hedonism where desires are turned into obsessions and long-term relationships are seen as “unrealistic”. We follow a man incapable of enjoyment, enslaved by the toxic urgency of a degrading drive whose sole prospect is that of another ferocious and frantic orgasm.
A monotonous sexual symphony underpinned by the absence of a biological score, bodies are exhibited, consumed and disposed of once their erotic capital is spent: castration of the senses parading as sexual freedom. This is the world Brandon inhabits and that the director shows us symptomatically through the characters behaviour. To get rid of his (im)personal pornographic arsenal will not free him from a compulsive sexuality induced by a sensorial overcharge that abolishes pleasure through commodification.
Under the emotionless rule of pornocracy, sentiment and the sexual act become incompatible elements, as dissonant as New York, New York whimpering into an algid dirge when sung by Sissy. When faced by the prospect of non-FMCS (Fast-Moving-Consumer-Sex) Brandon reveals his aversion towards the present time, “I’d like to be a rockstar in the 60s,” while his date prefers the “here and now” which he, no shit, finds “boring”. Sex eradicated from any relational implication becomes a tool of self-destruction, bodies emptying rather than fulfilling one another as in La Grande Bouffe by Ferreri with which Shame shares the same mortuary representation of the sexual act.
A bluish photography deprives the Big Apple of its landmarks turning it into a maze of aimless depravity outlined against a collapsed society where the ultimate distinguishing mark is anonymity. The film’s cyclical structure describes the fall of Brandon into the hell of addiction while also hinting at a possible redemption born out of personal drama. Though the director is careful not to pass judgement there are latent ethical implications in the dynamics between Brandon and Sissy that somehow place addiction out of its social context.
Steve McQueen confirms here his innovative craftsmanship, never predictable or didactic, and demonstrates an aesthetic awareness able to turn pathological symptoms into narrative material. With Foucaultian rigour the director anatomises the castigated body of modernity, in a magisterial and necessary film depicting our new red desert.
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands. Twitter feed here.
IN SWEDISH: Daniel Lindvall, ‘Man i fångenskap’, Arbetaren, 11 januari 2012.