Trauma, Emptiness and Failure to Relate in Steve McQueen’s “Shame”

Trauma, Emptiness and Failure to Relate in Steve McQueen’s “Shame”

This is a guest post by Helena Bassil-Morozow.

The opening scene of Shame (2011) is shocking in its colourlessness and stillness: the film’s protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender), with his hand almost on his groin, is lying in bed looking rather dead. The shot’s colour temperature is cold; the mis-en-scene’s minimalism – the still naked body against the background of blue-white sheets – evokes associations with hospital rooms and mortuaries. The bird’s-eye shot lasts half a minute and looks almost like a freeze frame until Brandon blinks. That’s when the viewer sighs with relief – the protagonist is alive and breathing.

However, Brandon’s life is all an illusion. Although his body perfectly works, internally he feels like a corpse. Psychologically, he is just about able to function. Professionally successful, personally he is a failure – lonely, sad, repressed and unable to establish meaningful connections with others. He has sex with assorted prostitutes, is addicted to porn in all forms and sizes and masturbates compulsively and obsessively. Brandon’s family consists of dysfunctional sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) whose psychological problems mirror his own.

When not sleeping with prostitutes or masturbating, Brandon goes out drinking and clubbing with his silly boss David (James Badge Dale) in an attempt to pick up women. His life is spent in sterile, grey, minimalist rooms – his flat, hotels, offices. His existence is framed, narrowed, sliced and fragmented by the angular urban architecture – by all this glass, steel, concrete. Brandon’s surroundings perfectly reflect the fragmented state of his soul; they emphasise a terrifying internal emptiness which is occasionally flooded by powerful and overwhelming waves of shame. The only highlight of his life is the smiling and mysterious female stranger (Lucy Walters) who he meets on subway train at the start of the film. He chases after her but she disappears in the crowd.

The whole film is focalised through Brandon’s eyes (the cinematic equivalent of free indirect speech). We are shown the world through his colourless, lifeless narcissistic lens. His vision of the world is one extended projection. The viewer sees – and empathises with – Brandon’s painful and compulsive search for an ideal prosthesis to fill the dark, painful void, to soothe the agony, to numb the pain of the internal wound. Brandon treats every woman as a potential replacement of his missing identity (a combination of Jungian ego and the self), and gets overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness and embarrassment when they refuse to be controlled. Every time he fails to establish mastery over the world, the terrible feeling of shame returns and throws him out of balance.

Shame is one of the most – if not the most – powerful of all human emotions. It defines us as conscious, thinking, emotional human beings. It exposes our inner fragility. It reveals our frailty in the face of the potentially hostile universe. It reminds us that, by becoming individuals – human beings with unique personalities, separate from our parents – we sacrificed the powerful, ecstatic, uroboric unity with the world. The birth of the individual is the birth of shame. The Bible identifies the loss of paradisiacal infant omnipotence as the essence of what it means to be human: we are born out of self-recognition, out of experiencing the world as ‘alien’, as something different; out of the realisation that others are not us. Shame is part of the process of seeing oneself as separate from one’s surroundings – it is about establishing contact, reaching out, attempting to connect with other human beings. When faced with the irreversible difference and foreign nature of the world, we become intent on establishing ourselves in it and on making our impression on our surroundings. This feeling becomes particularly unbearable during the moments of imminent failure or consistent absence of acknowledgement and praise – at times when mirroring is scarce. This pain of internal loneliness and sense of loss can be eased by establishing mirroring connections with others – by seeking and giving attention; by sharing emotional experiences. Unresolved, suppressed, uncontrollable sense of shame may transform human relationships into a curious – and sometimes tragic – cut-and-paste exercise entailing superficial sharing of part-objects, projecting one’s own pain and problems onto others without working though them.

A perfect prosthetic object (what Heinz Kohut termed ‘self-object’ – a  replacement of the individual’s missing centre of consciousness) would be the exact mirror opposite of Brandon. It would be something that he denies and represses in himself. It would perfectly fit into the edges of his wound. In fact, he already has such an object in his life – his attention-seeking sister Sissy who has a number of rather annoying incestuous habits including arriving, unannounced, at her brother’s flat, storming into the bathroom when he is masturbating, cuddling up to him in bed or watching porn on his laptop. However hard Brandon tries to protect his bland, spiritless, self-sufficient, lonely existence, Sissy’s persistent and unwelcome intrusions ruin his plans and fill his life with guilt, shame, incestuous desire, affect and conflict.

However, McQueen is keen to stress that Brandon’s bloodless selfishness is not just a problem originating in troublesome childhood or a result of some personal trauma. It is a malaise, a virus (that’s the metaphor McQueen uses) gradually colonising the entire body of the Western world. The film’s protagonist is a just a cell in this body. The internal emptiness of the individual in the post-industrial society is the result of the trauma of modernity. The individual, eternally trapped in this traumatised, immature state seeks his or her lost self in outer objects which he alternately sees as seductive and beautiful or aggressive and unmanageable. The tragedy of this kind of existence lies in the fact that these outer objects cannot be manipulated. Like a child unable to grasp the concept of the autonomy of others, and consequently unable to relate to the world in a mature way, he breaks down in fury and frustration.

Sissy and Brandon represent an ideal narcissist – co-dependent couple. They obsessively seek to merge with each other despite the incest taboo. The brother and the sister are locked in an emotionally violent yet indissoluble relationship. Sissy is everything that Brandon had long ago buried under the heap of false identities: emotional, creative, childish, dependent, demanding, lacking in self-sufficiency. She is his undeveloped true self – bleeding through the layers of artificial coldness and other means of psychological insulation. She manages to break through Brandon’s iron boundaries by forcing herself into his soul, and the might with which she does this is reflected in the rather repetitive song I want Your Love which is playing in a loop when Brandon finds her in his bathroom.

Sissy’s existence in her brother’s life reminds him of his own inability to control the world, his failure to manage and manipulate objects. She reduces him to a helpless child. Sissy is Brandon’s shame – she makes him cry with her singing, she makes him shout, she terribly shocks him by attempting to commit suicide. She has sex with her brother’s boss on her brother’s bed. She makes him painfully, vulnerably, terrifying alive by reviving their shared childhood trauma. Her existence – and her forcible boundary-breaking – throw Brandon into cycles of obsessive jogging and compulsive trouble-seeking in an attempt to regain control over the world and its objects. Their relationship is a form of addiction, dependency, compulsive merger – it is not a mature connection.

In fact, mature relationships are missing from Brandon’s life. Prostitutes, internet girls and pornographic images are all remnants of the magical world of uroboric omnipotence, of pre-individual existence. They maintain an illusion of perfect control over the object. Challenged – or rather, enraged – by Sissy, Brandon gathers and bins all of his porn magazines and the infected laptop. To make sure that they are gone, he empties his fridge into the bins as well. He attempts to bury his shame under platefuls of food. This does not help, however – he is still unable to have mature sex or have an equal relationship with a woman. The second date with his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) ends in a shameful sexual disaster.

Following Sissy’s suicide attempt and the subsequent hospital visit, Brandon collapses in a heap on the river bank. This is a powerful scene because it shows the height of his shameful helplessness – and his ultimate refusal (or inability) to grow up. The rain and the relentless grey urban landscape transform the successful city executive into a miserable tramp; they reveal his spiritual poverty, the tragic emptiness of his life. His only hope now is the subway stranger – the smiling woman wearing both a wedding ring and an engagement ring. She symbolises the protagonist’s hope for wholeness, for regaining his identity, for bringing together the fragmented parts of his personality. She is the idealised picture of the Jungian self – distant yet possibly attainable.

However, McQueen does not allow the audience to become too optimistic about the outcome of Brandon’s ‘shock therapy’. The ending of the film is open. The last shot is the close-up of the protagonist’s face looking at the woman. His revival – or survival – lies in the future, and we do not know whether it will take place at all. The cut to a black screen, although not entirely excluding hope for the protagonist’s psychological survival, nevertheless hints that Brandon has a lot to work through before he regains his self – and before he is united with the mysterious stranger.

Helena Bassil-Morozow is a cultural studies theorist and film
scholar. Her principal research interest is the dynamic between
individual personality and socio-cultural systems in industrialised
and post-industrial societies. She is an honorary research fellow of
the Research Institute for Media Art and Design, University of
Bedfordshire. She is edits the film section of ‘Spring: the Journal of Archetype and Culture’.

Helena’s books include ‘Tim Burton: the Monster and the Crowd’
(Routledge, 2010) and ‘The Trickster in Contemporary Film’ (Routledge, 2011).

Helena blogs on film and cultural theory at


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Comments (5)

  • Stephen Reply

    Firstly I want to express my heartfelt thanks to you Helena for writing this article for us. At least for my part I find your literary and film criticisms to enhance my experience of the medium, style and narratives. In the case of Shame, in particular, you have really deepened my understanding of the film and cleared up a few things I was struggling with in making sense of the movie, specifically how it related to the concept of shame.

    I think I get it now :-).

    The movie made quite an impression on me and I wanted to say a little about my thoughts, so I hope you will indulge quite an extended comment. Anyway you have given me much to think about, thanks again.


    As if to build a fence around the fatal emptiness inside her, she had to create the sunny person that she became. But if you peeled away the ornamental ego that she had built, there was only an abyss of nothingness and the intense thirst that came with it. Though she tied to forget it, the nothingness would visit her periodically, on a lonely rainy afternoon, or at dawn when she awoke from a nightmare. What she need at such times was to be held by someone, anyone. – Haruki Murakami, 1Q84.

    My thoughts on Shame:

    The movie deals explicitly with the topic of sex addiction and relational dysfunction in the lives of Brandon and his sister Sissy. Both are compulsive, deeply distressed and profoundly lonely. And both find their only connection with others through sexual congress.
    Now although it is taken to an extreme in their case, the movie focus predominantly on Brandon, I think it speaks more broadly to the general human condition. And this is it brilliance. Whilst Brandon is excessive, what drives him drives all of us. This is, I think, the implicit topic the movie deals with, the absolutely irrational and compulsive nature of human life.

    Brandon, like all of us, is in search of a high that he falsely believes will deliver some kind of momentary grace, and, simultaneously, offer release from the torment of his existence. He is in other words an addict. But I claim, and this is what I think McQueen is aiming at, we are all addicts. The very act of aspiration to achievement is an addiction to success, affirmation, and happiness. And we all aspire to succeed in one way or another. We are like Brandon constantly seeking affirmation, validation, meaning and purpose.

    Brandon seeks it between the legs of a woman (any woman). But if Freud was right this is what we all seek, the only difference being that for most functional adults the desire is largely symbolized, not entirely symbolized of course but enough for us to function as a polite society.

    I concede this is a (Freudian) perspective and some may disagree. But does such disagreement matter? For whatever you choose to replace the drive with it still comes down to an un-chosen, irrational, compulsive and cruel force that animates us. This I imagine is what Schopenhauer was driving at in The World as Will and Representation.

    What makes sex so compelling when one is considering the human condition, and what no doubt contributed to the brilliance and longevity of Freud’s insight, is how clearly it exposes the illusion of civilization and the absurdity of our pretensions as “civilized people”. Whilst one should, I believe, recognise that sexuality is itself merely a symbol of our primal natures and the irrationality of our drives; it is an exceedingly potent and effective symbol. It is the play on this symbol that makes McQueen’s film so brilliant at illuminating this dark aspect of the human condition. Sex is an unconscious, irrational and defining handicap under which we all labour, sick and healthy alike.

    May 28, 2012 at 7:50 am
  • Chantelle Reply

    Helena did indeed make me see the movie a little differently – I hadn’t even paid a thought to the industralised setting, even though the coldness came starkly through. And I have at least a toe or two on your Freudian vessel too, Stephen. But for me, the most jarring aspect of the entire movie was the complete absence of language. And since none of the ‘features’ (‘characters’ seems too personal) seemed capable of connecting with or seeing each other as they ‘were’, it seems a confirmation that language and identity are inextricably linked. We can categorise by concept (as Brandon does with women) but not connect. But then I love language and psycholinguistics is my favourite hammer. So every problem looks like a nail.

    May 28, 2012 at 1:21 pm
  • Chantelle Reply

    ‘Absence’ relatively speaking … ^_^

    May 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm
  • Wanda Reply

    Sjoeweeee….. Thought provoking stuff. Having had an interesting childhood(who didn’t have one??) and three siblings, it gave me a LOT to think about. Helena’s review put things so clearly in place.
    Will admit, was not easy to watch and that is probably JUST what made it so affective. Got to visit those dark places, hmm??? Growth is always with a little pain…

    Thanks for pushing us at times Stephen!

    June 5, 2012 at 5:41 am

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