The Sexual Ambivalence of Brandon Sullivan In Shame

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Steve McQueen’s Shame focuses on the life of Brandon Sullivan played by Michael Fassbender. On the surface, the film deals with neurosis, dysfunction and a damaged sibling relationship. However, this film has incredible depth, and undoubtedly it is one of the most profound and complex character studies of the 21st century.

Brandon is a sleek young executive who has a corporate job somewhere in New York. Beneath the suave personality lies, a man who is on a ceaseless run to fulfill is everlasting sexual appetite. We find Brandon torn between these extremes which Michael Fassbender has brilliantly portrayed with infectious passivity.

Introduction to Brandon Sullivan

Steve McQueen is a visual poet. Much of the information about the character is revealed visually. The first shot highlights the two extremes between which Brandon is torn apart. His left hand near the crotch signifies lust and the right hand across the bed highlights the empty half (Emptiness resulting from his incapacity to feel).

Also Read: Hunger [2009]: A Compelling, Haunting and Devastating First Feature.

This paradox lies at the very core of Brandon’s existence which we will see throughout the film. There is a brilliant sequence where Brandon takes the subway and blatantly catches a woman’s glances in the train. The woman smiles back at Brandon with an enticing gaze. Brandon takes this as an affirmation and decides to follow only later to find out that he has lost her in the crowded station. This failure is a gateway for the audience to sympathize with him. He then resigns to the ancient self-destructive road to orgasm – masturbation.

This sets off the story about a man who lives a normal life on the outside and how he fights to quench the eternal sexual thirst that lies inside of him.


Look at “Impotence” not only from a sexual standpoint. Brandon, throughout the film, feels powerless.

His sexual addiction is so strong that there comes the point where he finds it difficult to blend with the outside world as if the only way of communication for him is sex.

It is beautifully highlighted in a sequence where Brandon goes to a dinner date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie) – a breathtaking co-worker in his office. It is an ideal commentary on a supposedly romantic evening. It starts with a rather casual conversation and ends with a spark that is followed by a devastating tryst which bears nothing but emotional degradation.

Despite this, Brandon wants to see her again. Unfortunately, from this, the film takes a rapid turn for the worse.

Following the passionate scene where he kisses her at the office the next day and takes her off to a hotel for a daytime tryst, he is unable to perform sexually. McQueen juxtaposes this scene with a sequence where Brandon is involved in sexual activity with a prostitute which bears a striking resemblance with the one he sees from right across the streets while jogging a few nights ago. I believe this could be his fantasy. A successful pretense of feeding his ego which was hurt when he failed to perform sexually.

This offers a fascinating insight into the perplexing nature of human mind and profound influence of sex in our life.

The Sexual Ambivalence

By the end of the movie, his addiction gets so out of control that he ends up hitting on a woman who is with her boyfriend at a bar, having a man perform fellatio on him in a dodgy New York underground night club and then ending the night with a threesome with two random women from which he really gets no pleasure but only intense grief.

All of this boils down to the final scene where he comes across the subway girl yet again. They indulge in their private game of exchanging glances. As she gets up to leave, we see Brandon looking at her, and the movie ends.

Walter Murch stated in his book “In The Blink Of An Eye” that he regards blinks as a form of visual punctuation while cutting scenes. It signifies an end of thought. And he uses them as a reference point and prefers to cut the scenes before or after a blink.

In Shame, the last frame is cut somewhat in between of a thought process, long before Brandon would blink. Steve McQueen leaves it up to the audience to complete the thought process. There are two possibilities: Brandon could reject the idea of following her or He could resign himself to his old habits. In this way, we find himself, yet again, torn between the two certainties.

Author: Megh Bhavsar

Movies, books, and music are the cornerstone of my sanity. Being a photographer, I am obsessed with patterns, lines, and feet. I live very much in two places at the same time.