How Steve McQueen Displays Addiction in Shame
From the opening shot, Shame feels uncanny. Michael Fassbender, as Brandon, lies nude on top of his light blue sheets. He has a sex addiction, though that hasn’t been established yet. From overhead, there appears to be nothing else, as if his sheets were an ocean, on top of which he was floating. The bed encompasses the entire frame. As he stares at the ceiling, the only thing that’s clear is that something isn’t right. The shot, in no uncertain terms, sets the tone for the film. Through diligent and meticulous set design, costume design and cinematography, Steve McQueen and his cast and crew articulate the inner turmoil of having and attempting to escape an addiction.
The aforementioned opening shot, which runs for almost 50 seconds, is pregnant with foreshadowed meaning that reveals itself as the film’s plot progresses. The camera remains entirely motionless for the entirety of the take, and Brandon only moves in its final seconds. Immediately, the connection between Brandon and nudity and a bed is implanted in the mind of the viewer. Brandon’s eye color very closely matches the color of the sheets on his bed, as well. He stays almost entirely on one side of the bed, only extending an arm and a leg to the emptier half. This impresses upon the viewer that, while his life may not be full without a companion, there is no room.
The high key lighting of the shot makes it feel, more than anything else, sterile. Demonstrated in many ways by both the costume and set designers, the life that Brandon projects out is a construct. It’s disinfected and polished. His apartment is the perfect demonstration of this. All of the walls are white. All of the furnishings are silver or black. It does not, in any way, feel like a home. Despite the fact that there are personal belongings-a television, a record player and accompanying collection-it feels much more like an apartment for sale than it does like an inhabited one. It’s also telling that the first time Brandon’s apartment is really shown, the camera sits stagnant while he, naked, moves from his bedroom to his kitchen and then to his bathroom. It creates a thematic contrast between the remarkably untainted apartment he lives in and who he appears to truly be. His nudity doesn’t feel pure. It feels quite the opposite.
The clothing that Brandon wears is similar in nature to his apartment. His clothes are either a light shade of blue, a light shade of gray, white or black. He looks good, there’s no real doubt about that, but it also looks calculated. More than good, he looks sterile. All of this, of course, is a way to make the viewer understand that Brandon, more than anything, is keeping up appearances. He understands that his addiction is unsavory and that people around him can’t find out about it. He counters that as best he can by displaying the cleanest possible image for himself. Even if its artifice is obvious, he is able to obscure exactly what he’s hiding.
Past the costume and set design, the way that Brandon is framed is frequently demonstrative. He is almost never framed in the center of the shot when he is by himself. When he is putting on a mask for the people around him or otherwise acting normal, he exists much closer to or exactly within the center of the frame. In an early part of the film, he is at a bar with his colleagues talking to women. When he enters the conversation, he is almost dead center in the frame. As his framing suggests, within that scene he is perfect. He remembers the eye colors of all three women to whom he and his boss are speaking. Charm is dripping off of him. Later, he puts his boss in a cab and gets into a car driven by one of the women with whom he was flirting. He stays centered in the frame of each shot. He is centered so deliberately than even after he gets in the car, the camera pans to keep his seat approximately centered as the car moves further and further away. Only when he and the women are having sex against a building does he move more towards one side of the frame.
What is arguably the most important and demonstrative shot of the film comes after about 40 minutes. While Brandon’s sister is in his apartment flirting and presumably becoming intimate with his boss, Brandon goes for a run. The camera follows him on a dolly, and it seems to best literalize the internal struggle going on inside of Brandon’s head. He is framed on the left side of the screen, running towards the right side. As he speeds up or slows down, he moves closer to or further from the center. Regardless of how fast he moves, however, he is unable to move himself into the center of the frame. It is an expression of his inner struggle and failure to truly center himself. The takes runs for nearly a minute, which further emphasizes the extent of the fight Brandon is having within himself. This scene functions as a turn of the page, so to speak, for Brandon. Despite what appears to be a lack of success in overcoming what shackles him, it’s the first moment in the film where his effort to break from it in his own right and within himself is demonstrated.
Brandon goes on a date soon after the night he goes on a run. The dinner is with a woman from his office. She had been an object of his affection from a far for what seemed to be quite a while. There a few shots earlier in the film that show him staring at her. When they sit down for dinner, they’re in a long shot. Brandon is framed towards the very left of the frame and his date is framed approximately in the center. Their date takes place in one unbroken take, and as it progresses, the camera slowly moves in on the two of them, allowing for them to be subtly reframed as it goes. By the end of the date, he is just left of center and his date is just right of center. He spends most of their conversation further from center than she is, but it ends up evening out greatly when Brandon begins to open up to her about his dating history. Again, he is most central towards the end, after he admits that his longest romantic relationship was only four months. When the two of them are walking after their dinner, Brandon is centered in the frame. It demonstrates his change, at least in the present. When their date ends in a non-sexual fashion, he appears satisfied. It feels to Brandon like a true, actual turning point in his life.
That night, while he is masturbating in the bathroom, Sissy walks on. Ultimately, this ends in Brandon throwing away all of his pornography and his sex toys, as well as his laptop. While all of this is happening, he remains centered in the frame. This demonstrates something very important about Brandon and addiction in general. In his mind, an entirely unreasonable action that culminated in him throwing out a piece of expensive electronic equipment that likely had invaluable files was perfectly reasonable, or normal. He imagined it as part of what was necessary in order to center himself. The film recognizes, however, that his actions, while drastic, were entirely symbolic. He may have done what he felt he needed to do in order to escape his addiction, and his framing shows that it was, indeed what he felt he needed to do, but that doesn’t make the addiction go away. Instead, it forces the addiction to manifest itself in different forms.
Through the film, the way Brandon moves through the frame is a powerful representation of what is going on in his head. An incredibly important thing to understand is that it is really a representation only of what is in his head, not what is actually happening. The efforts that he makes, for the majority of the film, are not to escape his addiction, but to hide it from the people close to him. Even when he opens up to his date, he isn’t truly opening up. He is not ashamed of the fact that his longest relationship was four months because he knows that that fact is relative to. The act of tossing out all of the items he believes stimulate his addiction is a perfect embodiment of this. They were, to almost everyone, completely secret. By destroying them, all he did was make it seem to himself like he was beating his addiction even when he wasn’t. That, truly, is the most powerful thing that the framing and mis-en-scene within the film has to say about addiction and coping with it: fighting appearances will only make it appear that there is no addiction. Fighting appearances won’t make it go away.
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