Shame is a movie about sex, but before you get too excited as the title suggests there’s very little about it that would qualify as titillating or erotic. No, this is one of those sad sex movies where characters bump uglys impersonally and impassionately. It’s about sexual addiction, which weirdly hasn’t been touched on much in American film given how many movie stars seem to suffer from the affliction. There’s no sense in pretending this is an easy movie to digest and enjoy because that’s certainly not even close to the case. However, it is a perversely fascinating film that demystifies sex enough to send audiences flocking out of the theatre preaching the joys of celibacy…ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it is a good movie. Not exactly light entertainment, but definitely intriguing.
Michael Fassbender stars Brandon Sullivan a successful Manhattan business type with a classy bachelor pad as well as the charm and million-dollar smile that guarantees him success with the ladies. Trouble is, he can never seem to get enough of said ladies. He’s at home chatting up a beautiful girl at the bar with a high success rate, but his insatiable carnal appetites ensure that he’s also dabbling in high priced escorts and endless hours of internet porn as well. His life is an empty, cold pursuit of constant gratification and he seems incapable of finding a genuine emotional connection with a woman when he tries. Fassbender’s endless sexual pursuit is interrupted when his sister (an excellent turn from Carey Mulligan) makes an unexpected appearance and starts sleeping on his couch. She’s clearly troubled as well, but more openly so. She’s never had much in the way of work and seems to float around from one self-destructive relationship to the next. Their troubled relationship hints at a past that created both of their problems, but admirably the film never spells out exactly what happened. This isn’t a movie about dime store psychology, but an unsettling exploration of a serious affliction.
The movie comes from director Steve McQueen (no relation), an English artist who transitioned into film in 2008 with the haunting Hunger. Fassbender also starred in that project and the actor/director pair are a strong combination who clearly plan on continuing their working relationship for the foreseeable future. McQueen is a bit of a show off director who delights in long takes and expressive cinematography, yet he’s also smart enough to choose subject matter that suites his style. In Shame the cold distancing effect of the filmmaking creates a discomfort in the audience as they feel trapped with a sick man, unable to understand his mindset and forced to powerlessly observe the dark journey of self-destruction. Fassbender excels in the difficult role. He’s often silent, yet the pain of his existence is always clearly written all over his stoic face. He’s able to work his trademark charm, but there’s always a sad desperation to the performance and while the reasons for his sickness are never spelled out, the audience reaches an odd level of sympathy for his endless lust by the finale.
Though sex addiction seems like a somewhat amusing subject for a film, there’s very little to smile about in Shame. McQueen and Fassbender unapologetically sink to the depths of the issue with the NC-17 content not feeling remotely erotic, but deeply tragic and pathetic. In the internet age, it’s practically impossible to avoid carnal pleasures even while trying to harmlessly search for news stories. It’s an appropriate time for this film, even if it’s a harsh pill most audiences won’t dare to swallow. There’s a certain amount of open-mindedness and bravery required to sit down with Shame, but the rewards are worth it for thoughtfully perverted viewers out there. At the very least, this is one of the most unforgettable films of the year even if you might desperately wish you could flush some of the images out of your mind when it’s over.
The remarkable performances from Fassbender and Cary Mulligan as well as director Steve McQueen's admirably cold and disturbing treatment of the subject matter.
It's not exactly a fun watch, but it's worth the pain.