Steve McQueen’s Shame is my favorite film made in the last decade. I’m forever in love with its pain, and the brutal dedication Michael Fassbender brought to his leading role. I’m also utterly indebted to the film, as its style, tone, look and feel have influenced my own filmmaking beyond all measure. It’s a masterful character study that deserves continual exploration.
The sound of the neighbor’s alarm clock. If you can’t hear it, then you aren’t watching the film loudly enough.
The title card fading in as Brandon raises the blinds.
The fact that this shot starts with Brandon standing very close to the subway tracks. There’s no need for him to be standing that close. A great bit of subtle foreshadowing.
The moment Brandon sees the woman on the train, we start to hear sounds of him having sex with a woman. Most anyone would deduce that the woman we’re hearing is the woman on the train. Nope. With Steve McQueen, nothing is what it seems.
The production design of the film never gets enough credit. I mean just look at his apartment. It’s so lifeless.
The way the bathroom changes colors through the film. In the beginning it’s a warm yellow, and later it’s harshly overexposed.
This shot. So simple and telling.
“How is this possible?” I don’t know, you tell me.
The way Brandon stares at Marianne during their work meeting.
The shame on his face as he watches his work computer being taken away.
The brief fantasy of a naked, out of focus Marianne (Nicole Beharie) is very significant for a number of reasons. One: there is nothing else like it in the film. We never see Brandon fantasize about having sex with anyone in this visual way. In that regard, McQueen is temporarily abandoning the narrative he maintains throughout the film. Why? Because he can. Two: the fantasy looks like it is taking place at the Standard Hotel, where Brandon eventually does take Marianne. It’s a great insight into Brandon’s psyche – he’s already thinking about how he’s going to bed Marianne. When and where and how.
The audacity of James Badge Dale’s outfit in this scene. He’s a business owner pitching a bunch of guys in sharp suits, and he’s dressed casually (perhaps mockingly) in a tee-shirt, hoodie and blazer. (Note: I have since adopted this look and regularly wear it in offices and to meetings. It always gets compliments. Fuckin’ Badge Dale, man.)
A quick word about subtitles. I always watch movies with subtitles on. Even if the film is in English. Why? Because you never know what you miss. For the longest time, I thought Brandon said, “Grace who?” in the scene when his boss, David, is checking out a woman from across the bar. I assumed he was saying “Grace who?” ironically, as if “Grace” was the name of David’s wife. Nope, he’s saying “Gray suit,” as in, Yeah, you go and get her, and I’ll come in later for the steal.
This actress playing Elizabeth (real name: Elizabeth Masucci) is a sensation. In a very brief amount of time, she nails the annoyance of being hit on, the pleasures of being pursued, and the tap dance of flirtation.
Brandon walking by and making eye contact with Elizabeth.
“You’re a strong, independent woman. I like that.”
It’s very interesting that Brandon turns down a dance from Elizabeth’s friend. It shows that, despite his addiction, he’s still selective.
This is the most essential use of sexuality in the film. Think about the psychology of this scene – what kind of siblings would have a conversation under these circumstances?
Another great bit of foreshadowing. McQueen is establishing that the audience doesn’t need to see Sissy and Brandon’s faces in order for them to conduct an effective conversation.
“‘Yeah, I will.’ Like, ‘Yeah, I will’ like last time?” What a perfect line.
The way Sissy shuffles her feet when Brandon agrees to come listen to her sing.
The fact that this is probably the most emotion Brandon has showed in months.
McQueen directed Fassbender to get on the elevator as soon as it opened. Him waiting for the door to close and then sitting down on the chair was completely improvised.
For those wondering: Brandon lives at 9 W. 31st St at the corner of 5th Ave and W. 31st Street. A block south from the Empire State Building. And a block and a half east from Madison Square Garden.
I love Brandon’s tortured expression as he watches Marianne waiting for him in the restaurant. That is his pain.
Much of what makes the date scene so great is Brandon’s complete and utter inability to engage. He isn’t being rude when he doesn’t ask Marianne personal details about herself. He simply doesn’t know how.
The audacious (non)lighting of the post-dinner scene.
The dangerous power of this shot. The first time I saw this film, I had no idea what was going to happen here.
The frantic energy of the cleaning sequence. Its pace is unlike anything else in the film. Again, McQueen breaks the rules.
The amount of substances Brandon consumes. Whether it’s caffeine, booze, coke or cigarettes, he’s never fully clean.
Marianne’s choice of underwear during the hookup scene. She’s wearing normal underwear because when she woke up, she assumed it was going to be a normal day. An assumption that most other females fail to make in movies, as they are always dressed in expensive lingerie. Basically, I love this scene because it’s real.
I’ve never been able to decide if the woman from the Standard is a hooker or not. If she is, then she’s far more curious than a hooker needs to be (by going through Brandon’s things and such). The credits refer to her as “Hotel Lover,” and I just love not knowing for certain.
One of my favorite shots from any film, ever. It was the inspiration for the bottom shot, from my short film, Earrings.
If you look hard enough, you can see that Sissy’s face is red from Brandon grabbing her. Fassbender must have really grabbed her. Such intensity.
I love how Carly seems scared by her boyfriend. It adds a layer of fear to a scene that already has plenty.
The skillful blocking of the gay club scene.
The cinematography of the three-way scene, particularly how focus dips in and out, and the camera occasionally shakes violently to set up a new angle. Evocative and bold cinematography for an equally bold scene.
I love the naturalism of the small woman on the subway. It’s such an authentic reaction.
The first time I saw this movie, I remember how fucking shocked I was that it was daylight when Brandon emerged from the subway. The man has been out all night.
The way the natural sound dips out as Brandon walks into the bathroom to help Sissy.
Again, for you geography buffs, the tall building behind him camera right is the Standard Hotel, where Brandon had his failed sexual escapade with Marianne.
When we cut back to Brandon for the final scene, notice that he’s not standing near the edge of the platform. He’s safe and secure. Unharmed. For now.
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