Some of the best movies have no villain and no hero. In director Steve McQueen’s film “Shame” (2011), the main character is neither. McQueen does not rely on the simplistic plot twist of the victim/villain/hero triangle, and it is unclear who plays which role. This kind of ambiguity greatly enriches the film. I appreciate characters we can neither fully look up to, nor completely condemn. This is when cinema resembles life, rather than our construction of it— the way things are, rather than how we judge them to be. As the labels victim/villain/hero interact, the film remains unresolved, laying the puzzle of its entanglements on the audience to think about and work out. This challenge is thought provoking and heart provoking at the same time. Rather than passively observing McQueen’s film, it calls on the viewers’ hearts and minds to actively participate in making sense of the storyline.
“Shame” is executed to startling perfection. It reveals deeper truths about self-control and lack of it, and how self-control on the surface could be used to conceal a certain chaos and desperation within. By focusing on New York City as a place to have, and cover up, all kinds of disturbing experiences, the film vividly depicts the desire to block out feelings. What I value most is how directly McQueen presents unsettling material, putting the audience through the psychological experience of addiction they may have never personally encountered, but can relate to in the personage of Brandon.
“Shame” has been widely criticized for its combination of provocative material and chilly, uninvolved style. Not only is the main character aloof, but there is a similar crispness in the film’s visual direction. McQueen offers no moral support or guidance through the emotional and sexual maze we navigate with Brandon. I see this as a strength of the film rather than a weakness. Perhaps the best way to endow a work with an ethical quality is not by example, but by an excess of the opposite. Redemptive movies are often the ones in whose protagonist we see ourselves— and don’t want to see ourselves. It is a recognition that reveals the secret discomforts we strive so vehemently to ignore. McQueen shows us a main character whose ruthless behavior we would prefer not to identify with. This feeling can lead us to examine our similarities with Brandon and strive to widen the gap between how we act and the actions of the protagonist. In this way, “Shame” is a call for compassion toward others, and honesty toward ourselves, yet it is executed in an artistic form that is very different from a lecture or advice.
The critical consensus about “Shame” overlooks this side of the film. Critics complained that the film, rated NC-17, contains too much sexual content and does not place 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 censured McQueen for “dwelling on the facts of behavior and bodily experience.” Similarly, The Phoenix noted the director “doesn’t go much below the surface in analyzing the obsessive, doomed conduct of his characters.” This perspective is limiting. I think it is important to see certain extremes displayed in all their physicality on the screen and then confront them ourselves through the lens of our own moral compass, not one spoon fed by a director.
McQueen gives viewers the opportunity to gain more than a superficial understanding of the issue at hand: in “Shame” we are shown the full picture of one man’s actions, and are left to examine precisely what it is that went wrong. A film that inspires viewers to reflect is taking the right approach. Viewers go through all the hell of an obscure Inferno, and when the screen goes dark and the theater lights come up, emerge safely on the other side, more knowledgeable, yet with questions to turn over, not just answers to accept or dismiss.
While much remains unanswered, the film may leave its viewers with the desire to be better human beings. Through showing graphic material and emotional indifference in a direct and nonjudgmental way, the film becomes a call to acting with kindness, to loving lovers, and to treating family members with care. Without these elements, the protagonist’s life falls apart. Though Brandon is successful and attractive, he uses casual encounters to try to establish a sense of self-worth. Ultimately, “Shame” demonstrates the importance of cultivating feelings of self-worth beyond the confines of other people. It illustrates how important it is to feel that one is a fully-fledged human being independent of others’ admiration, money, sexual conquests, or other external sources of affirmation. The frigidity of this film leaves us with a striving to be warmer, as we hope for the same transformation in Brandon. We would like to see him move a little further from the villain that appears at first glance, and a little closer to the hero we see flickers of, and can almost imagine him (and ourselves) to be.
About the Author
Elizabeth Pyjov graduated from Harvard University in 2010, magna cum laude, with a degree in Romance Languages and Literatures and Classics as a secondary field. She has worked for the Global Justice in New York City, Italian television at RAI International in Rome, the United Nations in Geneva, and at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford Medical School. Elizabeth is fluent in Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. She successfully received the CCT certification from the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in June 2013. She taught Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training to students in and around Stanford in the Fall of 2013.