there are very few films that i would call perfect. films that are technically flawless and challenge the audience to do more than simply watch a movie. steve mcqueen’s shame is one of those movies every shot has meaning, every line of dialogue has significance, and every scene adds to our understanding of a very twisted protagonist. this movie is nothing short of a masterpiece. today, we are going to be looking at why it is so phenomenal. i would now like to take a moment to warn people about spoilers but more importantly graphic content. more specifically extreme sexual content, violence, foul language, and drug use. i have a lot to say about this movie, so without wasting any more time. let’s get right into this dissection.
this is a film by information, as it progresses, we get more and more information about our two main characters. so in order to evaluate the film it was intended to be seen, we are going to go through scene by scene, to point out the significance in each scene as we learn more about these characters. i don’t want this to turn into a summary of the film, although i will be describing some of the key events happening in each scene. this video isn’t meant to be a substitute for watching this movie, but instead of supplement. so let’s start with the opening sequence in which we see brandon lying awake in bed surrounded in blue sheets. color is a very significant part of storytelling in this film. and the color blue serves to mean isolation, like the color of the sky or sea. brandon is lying alone in bed isolated. in his life
he feels alone. and throughout the film, he searches for someone or something to fill the hole that plagues him. he lives a very uniform public life. his alarm goes off and he gets up. his public life is driven by appearances alone. he has an alarm clock, not because he needs it if he’s already awake, but because that’s what society expects of him. the title appears on his bed and this serves a double meaning. obviously it is the title of the film but in addition, it shows that he is a shameful of his private life, or his sex life, which is signified by the bed. he gets dressed and is next seen wearing a dull-colored scarf and jacket, which helps him cover up his private life. half his face is lit, while the other half is completely dark. one side of him is open to the world to see,
meanwhile the other is covered, and only known to a select few. he moves and we still only see the same half of face. despite him being in new york city, he is still alone. there are people in the background, but they are blurred out. he is alone in the public. on the subway, we begin to learn about his sex addiction. as he stares up at a young women with the sound of sex playing in the background. we cut to a flashback of him in bed with another woman, before he walks around his apartment naked. in this we learn what drives him. we begin to look at his interaction on the subway differently. no longer is it a harmful thought, but instead it is a menacing goal of his. we get another cut of him hiring a prostitute
and we learned that there is one thing that drives this man, lust. the next morning and we see him walking around again. this is someone with a pattern to his life, and every day he is stuck in the same loop, the same formula. until he checks his voicemail and receives a call from his sister. there is gonna be a little bit more on this next. well, let’s go back to the subway, which his harmless eye contact turns menacing. the next shot we see of him, his face is blurred out. this is a man who we are not supposed to know. it looks like he is wearing a mask. normally, he walks around wearing his public persona, but as he sees the woman on the train, his private, or sexual persona, takes over. the next time, we see the woman,
we are met with a look of fear. however when we cut back to brandon, we can see his face. so the next time we see the woman, she has a look of contemplation on her face, of whether or not she would like to sleep with him. she decides she doesn’t want to and crosses her legs, a sign of celibacy. however, brandon does not return the gesture, and continues to look at her with the same menacing eyes. he wants her, whether or not she wants him. we get yet another flashback of him masturbating in the shower. and in the mirror, we see his reflection. this is the first shot in the film featuring a mirror, and it serves as a self-reflection. he is shameful of his addiction, and he faces it head-on yet he looks down to try and avoid it. it is still present in his life despite him trying to hide it.
we’ll be going back to the use of mirrors later in this dissection. in a last-ditch effort to try and avoid him, the woman stands up trying to take herself out of this situation. however, brandon puts himself back in the situation by standing behind her. we also learned that she is married. so her final attempt to leave the situation is to run off the train, however brandon pursues her. however he loses her, while he looks for her, he rotates 360 degrees around. he is showing himself off, to the whole world. no longer is he conservatively facing in one direction, he is out in the public and showing all sides of him, both his public and his private. he descends back into his private life, defeated.
this scene shows perfect visual storytelling. only a handful of words are spoken by any character, and nothing really that substantial. with less than ten minutes into the movie, we already know so much about this character. he is driven by sex, and lives his life for that reason only. he is very private. he keeps to himself for almost everything, with the exception of sex, when he comes out of his shell. we do hear dialogue in the scene in the form of a voicemail message from his sister, sissy. which we have not yet discussed. his sister calls and one thing becomes very obvious. she is very different from him. whereas brandon is keeping to himself barely uttering a word. before sissy even enters the film, she has said much more than him. moreover, she reaches out for dependence. she needs someone to talk to, as she reaches out to brandon saying,
"braaaandooooon." she is trying to find him while he is out, hiding, and not wanting to be found. as the voicemail comes to an end, brandon closes the door on the machine, not wanting to hear anymore. during a meeting the next day, he gazes off into nothingness. before someone says, "i find you disgusting." this quickly gets brandon’s attention. he knows what he does is dirty. he has shame about it, but it is something that he cannot escape, and has set his life up so he cannot avoid it. when he’s confronted by it, he immediately gives it his attention before he realizes it about something else, and he drifts back off. what does get his attention is his computer being taken away. now in hindsight knowing what we know about him,
it’s obviously infected by pornography. and he begins to get nervous, so his go-to state when nervous is to masturbate. he goes into the stall in the bathroom at work but before he does anything, he wipes down the toilet seat. he still has a set of rules that guide his life. his public life is very clean, he does not want as public life to become dirty. so despite his life having two extreme contrasts, he still maintains a sense of stability. he’s a very successful man, he lives in a nice apartment, works in a big company, and his apartment is empty. we only catch glimpses of it, and we only see tables, a light, a phone and a blender. but nothing really that substantial. there’s no artwork on the walls or anything. all of his walls are a shade of white.
they represent the meaninglessness of his life in every field except for the sexual one. at night, he eats cold leftover chinese food, he’s very far from flashy, and as the night progresses, he watches pornography before his sister calls twice. she leaves another voicemail and the framing of this scene has a lot of significance. he faces his laptop with his back to the phone. he is choosing his sexual life, over his sister. later brandon and his boss david go out to a club to try and find some woman. and this scene shows two things. first, it shows that david has a similar lust for women, just like brandon. however, he is unable to act on it despite him obviously wanting to. it also shows that no matter what brandon, he will get his release. whether he is home alone like we saw earlier, or out with a group of friends.
no matter what, his sexual desire is going to take precedent. in the next scene, we finally meet sissy. brandon goes home and hears music playing in his apartment as he enters. he grabs a baseball bat and goes to the bathroom where his sister is showering. this scene does a really great job at showing off their relationship, and helping us understand, why they are the way they are. let’s start by looking at brandon. as after mentioned, brandon is someone who has a pattern to his life. his days are often the same, as are his nights. so in something new enters his life, he is forced to deal with it in any way he can. he first tries to solve the problem with violence by grabbing the bat. but he realizes, it is his sister. so there’s nothing that he can do violently. so instead of confronting the intruder,
he’s instead forced to confront himself. and this can be seen to the placement of the mirror. just like more earlier, the mirror force brandon to confront himself. he is standing in front of a naked woman. normally he would treat the situation very differently, but because it is his sister, he is forced into treating it this way. his sister is the only thing in his life that stops a sexual yearning. some people have speculated there’s a history of abuse within their family, be that sexual or some other horrible kind. although, i don’t want to rule that out, i don’t think that it’s an important part to understanding the film. also not a psychologist, i don’t want to miss diagnose anything.
so i will say that it would be safe to assume the two of had a troubled past, and that troubled past has led them to where they are today. whereas brandon wants nothing to do with his sister, she clings to him. in the background we hear this song, "i want your love", which was put on by sissy. she wants support from him, and yet he does not want to give that up. after he exits he turns off the song, essentially rejecting the idea of giving back his love, and proceeds to pick up his sister’s scarf. in the same way that brandon wears a dull-colored scarf to help cover himself up, sissy wears the exact opposite. a bright colored scarf which draws attention to her. the two are near exact opposites of one another, yet they’re both cut by the same cloth. they do the same thing differently. later that night
he is forced out of his pattern when he goes to watch pornography. he can no longer do it by the window. he is now forced into his bedroom to do it. whether sissy means to or not, she is forcing him out of his comfort zone, into doing something else. he overhears a conversation she is having in which she says, "i love you." her life is dominated by wanting someone. she looks for dependence as well to put herself through anything. "i don’t need anybody else." which is true as long as she has someone to depend on. she begs for acceptance from somebody, because she couldn’t find it from them, she turns to her brother. as brandon overhears this, he begins to realize that she needs
his help. and he was willing to put himself through a lot in order to help try and support her. the next morning, she begins to push her luck by wearing an earring from one of brandon’s previous partners. she then goes on to drink orange juice directly from the jug, and brandon begins to view her, almost as incompetent. she lives a life that is the exact opposite of his. his public life is clean, neat, and orderly. whereas hers is a mess. she doesn’t have a real job, she doesn’t have a place to sleep. and he begins to have paternal feelings for her. he cooks eggs for her, and makes her drink from a cup. in the next scene this paternal relationship continues as she steps too close to the edge of the tracks. brandon pulls her back. she then tries to even the relationship by telling him, take fluff out of his jacket. yet, he fights back.
i take this to mean that sissy could help him out. she could be a helpful part of his life. yet, he resists change. she could be there to help his life improve. to break this pattern that haunts his life, that he is shameful of. this movie often gets called a ‘sex movie’. in a much more appropriate way to describe it would be a movie about addiction. throughout the entire film you see brandon try and break the cycle in his life. and sissy could be the perfect person to help him with that, yet he turns her down. thinking that only he could give her help. he moves on to ask if she needs money and it becomes clear that he doesn’t view her as a functioning part of society. she asks him to see her sing. he agrees, and the two begin to bond over the silly hat that she wears. this hat has a lot of significance. first, there’s the connection to "the catcher in the rye."
in it the story’s protagonist, holden, wears a red hunting hat which symbolizes his uniqueness. but also his desire to be part of greater society. and that is reflected on both these characters. sissy want to be unique. she doesn’t fit in the standards that most people follow. meanwhile brandon wants to be part of functioning society because of his addiction. he feels like he’s missing out on the greater world. whether that was intentional or not, there definitely are a lot of parallels thematically and the characters of holden and brandon are similar enough that i don’t think that it was a coincidence. but in addition the hat’s color also shows brandon coming out of his shell through his sister. normally he wears washed out blue and gray colors. and something as bright as this hat, stands out in his washed-out life. in general, the color red usually symbolizes either lust or death.
lust should speak for itself. it shows that brandon is marked by wearing this hat, and his secret cannot stay in him forever. and death is foreshadowing, the events that happened to sissy, later in the film. that day in the office, david invites brandon back out to a club to try and pick up more women. brandon agrees but only if they go to where sissy will be playing music. he obviously still has some concern for her. at the club when sissy begins to sing "new york, new york", it takes brandon by surprise. as he sees his sister has more value than he originally thought. the song in this scene is one of the most significant in the entire movie. the fact that the entire four-minute song is in the movie. as opposed to just a small
excerpt from it, shows that this is the major turning point for the character of brandon. the biggest message that we can get from this is that brandon cares for his sister. and he realizes this and it takes him by surprise. for the first time in the movie, the real brandon comes out. not the sex addict, not his public persona, but a real emotional person who cares for and about his sister. after the song ends sissy comes over to the table to sit with brandon and david, and brandon puts up his public shield. he isn’t letting the song affect him in a major way. he is telling sissy that it was simply, "good." shortly after that david starts hitting on her. she also tells us that she doesn’t know how to, or simply doesn’t drive. this reaffirms her dependence that she has on other people. if she wants to get from point a to point b,
she still needs somebody’s help. however, she also has a dependency on herself, as we learn that she used to cut her wrists. this is a character who feels like her life is only worth living, if she is with somebody who cares for her. remember that when looking at this character. david begins to realize that she is also so dependent on people, and begins to take advantage of it, by offering to teach her how to drive. however what is important to watch isn’t these two conversing, but brandon. david might have the same drive for him and that brandon does, but isn’t familiar with using it like brandon does like we saw in the bar last night. but brandon is able to recognize what david is doing, and he feels protective of his sister. and knows david and doesn’t want david near his sister. but, david is his boss. so he’s in a unique situation in which he wants to stop him, but he can’t.
david abuses this and eventually we see them in the back of a taxi. we see david wearing one of sissy’s hats. this shows that the connection that she and brandon shared earlier, is shattered. she’s willing to lend it to anyone who shows who the smallest bit of affection. this is a breaking point for brandon. he loved to reel him out earlier, and was able to form a bond with his sister. and he felt like she had severed that bond by sleeping with david. instead of wanting to confront them he waits by the elevator as it opens and closes. this is when he watched his addiction take over by the time he gets up to his own apartment, he can hear sissy and david. this is where he’s confronted the most by his addiction.
no longer it’s something he can look down the void, but now he hears it. it’s a constant noise in the background. he sees himself reflected on to david and does not know how to respond. while he paces he sees a reflection of himself in the mirror. this is his addiction taking form. he goes out running to try and clear his head but it also shows him trying to escape, in ability to do such. he tries to avoid his addiction, but it always follows him. maybe in this case the camera represents that addiction. it always says that a steady pace as it follows him around new york. he runs through the darkness signifying this is the place that he’s never been. he has always been able to gratify his lung for sexual release. yet in this case
it stays with him. while he runs classical music plays in the background, but it’s simply this represents the complexity of his life, he struggles of trying to make sense of it all. when he gets back to his apartment he tries to go to sleep, sissy tries to crawl in bed with him, and after david obviously left, she now turns to brandon for support. yet, brandon does not want to give back after he felt that she had betrayed him, so he orders her out. next brandon comes into work after a sleepless night and was told that he got his computer back before david calls him into his office. while he walks in david is facetiming or skyping his family. his character is also very interesting. he has quite a few parallels with brandon in his unrelenting desire for sex. however unlike brandon, he isn’t always able to act on it. with the introduction of his family we learned that he has no boundaries.
unlike brandon who isn’t willing to commit to anyone, david is willing to break the trust of his family. david starts to confront him about his computer. "it is, it is dirty." telling him that it’s full of pornographic material. however, it is immediately written off as somebody else. david: "do you think it was you intern?" jack: because brandon is so successful. he is so high up in society, people expect that he isn’t going to behave in a certain way. so because of that, he’s able to hide who he really is, behind what people expect him to be. in the next scene we see him staring across the water of the new york skyline while classical music plays in the background. last time we heard this music, he was trying to escape his addiction, but now we stand still not trying to fight it, just accepting it.
this is a turning point in his life. the point when he’s willing to accept who he is. he looks up at the two people having sex in a window, two people in the open this is what he kind of wants, maybe not literally, but he wants to be open about his love and his addiction to sex. later that night brandon goes out to dinner with someone from his office and the idea of marriage is brought up. brandon says he’s opposed to the idea showing he is responsible enough to know his boundaries, unlike david. he says that he couldn’t imagine sharing his life with only one other person, and says that the longest relationship he had only lasted four months. later that evening while walking home the two discuss what and when they would like to be if they could go back in time, and be anyone who would they be?
brandon says that he wants to be a musician in the 1960s. well, she says here and now. this is able to show brandon is discontent with where he is. he wants to be somebody else but is trapped in his own flawed body. later that night brandon thinks he is alone and goes into the bathroom to masturbate and sissy walks in on him. creating a scenario that is the almost exact opposite of what happened earlier in the film. however the tables are turned, brandon responds violently trying to choke her. she confronts him in his most vulnerable stage, and he cannot handle that, so his response is to attack her. this situation gets worse when she stumbles onto his laptop where an online
stripper is looking for brandon. his secret is getting out , and not in the way that he wanted. his sister is slowly finding out how far his addiction goes, and how much control it has over his life. instead of trying to fight him she decides to leave. then brandon makes a decision to take it all out of his life. he cleans out his catalog of adult content trying to make a fresh start on his life. but even through doing this it doesn’t help. his secret is out and not in the way that he wanted. the next day he and marine go to a hotel together and he starts using cocaine. this perfect balance he had up in his life is broken. he has turned to drugs to try and find satisfaction. his sexual addiction has bled over into the world of drugs. they start kissing on the bed and brandon his face for the choice,
either stop here or continue to live the life that he has been. he contemplates this for a long while and it looks like he’s going to make the choice to try and close the door in his sexual addiction. he asks her to leave, however, he caves in, and his next scene having sex with another woman against the glass window. just like he saw in the couple earlier in the film. he is now putting his sex life out for the entire world to see. his addiction beat him. the camera now follows the woman into the bathroom where she gets dressed in front of the mirror. i’ve already discussed the significance of the mirrors in this movie so when we see her in front of it, wearing a look of disgust or a look of shame,
the message of the movie is reavealed. that is that everybody has this addiction at least to an extent. after the woman leaves brandon looks across the water dreaming of something more. he led his addiction beat him. now back in his apartment he watches cartoons before his sister comes home. they begin to discuss david and how he is married and now sissy is clinging on to david. she then moves her attention to brandon asking him for a hug. as the conversation continues, the compassion that brandon felt her earlier, has disappeared. he now only feels contempt for her and pushes her away telling her that she needs to leave. in order to escape the loneliness that brandon feels, he goes out that night looking for somebody. he hit on a woman in a bar before her boyfriend beats him up.
he goes into a gay bar. some people think that because of this that his character was gay the entire time. however i think that when he is at his low point he is looking for company, and he’s looking anywhere to try and get it. when he leaves the gay bar, he sees a twisted reflection of himself. he is trying to get a hold of his life, but it is slipping out of control. he gets a call from sissy who says that she needs his help and that they are two people who come from a bad place saying it is not their fault for the way that they are. while he’s getting this voicemail he is seen having sex with two people. the color that we see is golden, very mythical music plays. this is him in his perfect state. for the first time in the movie it looks like he’s happy.
however this happiness is contrasted with the subways he returns home bruised. when the subway stops the doors don’t open. we hear sirens in the bathroom and see people running by furiously. something bad happened. it creates a visual parallel to sissy’s standing too close to the tracks, and we think that something has happened to her. as does brandon who tries calling her, but she doesn’t answer. for the third time in the movie, we hear classical music play. the previous two times, it had to do with his addiction. first, he was running from it, then he was accepting it, but the third time, it is about the consequences of his addiction. this is something that we really don’t see throughout the movie. we’ve never really seen the impact that his addiction has had on his life.
it obviously consumes a lot of his time and his every waking day but, we’ve really never seen it painted in that bad of a light. it’s obvious he feels bad about it, but we have never really seen any real consequences of it. however at the very end we do see the consequences. he goes up to his apartment, goes into the bathroom, and sees his sister lying on the floor on the verge of death. he views this as his fault well. he was out having sex she was trying to get in contact with him, trying to reach out in a last-ditch effort for him to accept her. but his need for sex overpowered his affection for his sister, and it caused this.
he breaks down in the middle of the road. he is there defeated out in the open and vulnerable. as if that wasn’t sad enough, the final scene of him is back on the subway, where he makes eye contact with yet another woman. he looks down, thinking to himself is it worth it. his desire for lust worth of pain that he has caused, but to him it is and he looks back up. just like the first woman did earlier she stands up and holds on to the post so we can see her wedding ring. all the while brandon looks up at her contemplating before the screen goes black. one of the best ambiguous endings to a film i have ever seen. so that is steve mcqueen’s shame. one of the best movies of the 21st century and one of the best movies of all time.
and as previously stated this dissection is not meant to be a substitute for watching this movie, but instead of a supplement. so if you’ve not seen it, make sure you go see it. this video focus predominantly on the narrative but equally important and equally significant is the color, soundtrack, cinematography, editing, and the writing. every aspect of this movie is great, and i would love to hear your thoughts on it so drop a comment. tell me what you think about it. leave a like if you enjoyed this video and subscribe so you can join me next time when we look at inherent vice. that’ll be out next saturday until then make sure you check out my last dissection which we looked at fantastic mr. fox in the element of world-building. thanks for watching and i’ll see you next time.