Shame appears to establish Brandon (Michael Fassbender) as the suave gentleman that doesn’t exist outside of fiction, unflappable and exuding preternatural confidence. We soon find that this persona is a thin shell around a damaged core, and the film the same: beginning with confident, gliding cinematography that becomes gradually more erratic, disjointed.
Shame isn’t a film about sexual addiction in the same way that Leaving Las Vegas isn’t a film about alcoholism – in each case the main characters are defined by their addiction, but with the complexity of real life. The film is about the two broken people at its core, Brandon and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Each is a victim of undetailed abuse, and each clearly cares deeply for the other; but it is clear that each time Brandon looks at Sissy he’s torn between that fondness and the pain of reliving their shared history.
This is best demonstrated in an early, phenomenal scene, shown below. It was shot in one take with Fassbender having never heard Mulligan sing before, and is perfectly executed by the actors and director McQueen. It serves as a synecdoche of the entire movie, and is the clear high point of the film.