Shame, the second feature from director Steve McQueen (Hunger), is a study of sex addiction that isn’t really about the addiction so much as a more universal concern: the deep-seeded erosion of intimacy, the blurred lines between sex and love. It isn’t all the sex; it’s what it does to you.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is the addict. On the surface, he seems like a normal guy: nice New York City apartment, well-paying job, a bit of a loner. Behind closed doors, he has a massive pornography collection, chronically masturbates (in the shower, in the office restroom), fills his work laptop with porn, frequents prostitutes, and engages in anonymous sex.
There’s a colleague at work (Nicole Beharie) he’s attracted to. They go out to dinner on what seems like a normal date. Later, Brandon takes her to a hotel. They get intimate, but he’s unable to perform.
Because he actually started to have feelings for her, he’s repulsed; in her, in himself. He cannot have sex with a woman he actually cares for; he can only degrade women. He calls in a prostitute to replace her.
It’s not just the sex life. There’s also his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She’s a nightclub singer with problems of her own that seem to be on the opposite side of the spectrum. Brandon can’t bear to touch her, to lie in bed next to her, to think about her in the context of being with another man. To him, intimacy and physical contact correlate only to sex; ‘women’, in this context, are only objects of degradation.
Shame was originally set to be shot in London, but the New York setting is integral to the film’s theme. In the US, sex and nudity are shunned by mass media, any serious discussion of the topics stifled. Indeed, few will see Shame due to its NC-17 rating, which prevents it from taking advertising in many publications or being shown at the major cinema chains.
European actors Fassbender and Mulligan play outsiders who came to the US at a young age. Shame is never explicit in its themes, but perhaps their ‘natural’ attitudes towards sex have become warped by the culture they live in, their problems traced to adapting to a community where public discussion of sex is forbidden, and, in private, desires are unnaturally fostered.
Above and beyond the narrative, Shame is a work of art; viewers of McQueen’s previous film, Hunger, will come to expect this, but Shame is less oblique, more approachable, it’s themes easier to grasp.
There’s a stunning, unusual rendition of New York, New York by Mulligan, filmed mostly in a single close-up; another lengthy, memorable shot tracks Fassbender jogging through endless city blocks.
While New York City is the home to every other film set in a bustling metropolis, McQueen captures the contemporary city in a way few others have. Cinematography by Sean Babbit perfectly frames the characters lost in a sea of overbearing buildings in downtown Manhattan. Like Nicolas Winding Refn in Drive, an outsider’s perspective proves more effective than most insiders.
Bleak and draining, without much in the way of hope, Shame is not an easy film to watch. The art can only make it so digestible. But for adult, discerning audiences, this is a powerful and affecting film that won’t easily be forgotten.