Steve McQueen plays the shame game in his second film.
If in Hunger Steve McQueen broke Michael Fassbender down physically, in Shame he does so emotionally. In McQueen’s sophomore film, he moves away from the politics of Ireland (though this will be returned to) to midtown Manhattan’s politics of sex. Opening with an already-recognizable McQueen long take, we find Brandon (Fassbender) in bed, staring catatonically toward the ceiling, with a metronome-like noise pulsating in the background. As he rises, this noise continues, connecting the temporally unaligned scenes of the previous night’s tryst and his ride to work on the subway. This ticking, steady and constant, cues us to Brandon’s desires for (if not addiction to) sex (whether paid for, taken into his own hands, or with random women). Like a metronome, he seems controlled, but when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to crash on his couch, the desires he has previously been able to manage surface in a shameful way.
While coding nearly all the scenes between Sissy and Brandon as incestuous, McQueen never makes this explicit. In fact, the only reference to where this shame might stem from is a casual reference to Brandon’s emigration from Ireland in his teens. McQueen seems to be playing on constructions of Irish-Catholic guilt (and bearing in mind the past few years, potentially the priesthood scandals) as well as heteronormativity, coyly cuing the audience to several possibilities for Brandon’s shame.
As in Hunger, McQueen’s previous work as an installation artist is evident: the film is utterly beautiful. The issue is whether there is anything substantial beneath this veneer.