Shame is a feeling that most of us know very well. Now imagine that feeling is so great, it dominates your every waking moment. Steve McQueen’s film Shame, which was released on DVD last week, takes a look at a man whose sexual addiction and shame associated with it have almost completely swallowed his life. This film does not pass judgment; it simply drops in to watch a man struggle with his darkness.
The protagonist, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), is held hostage by his sexual addiction, and has his life perfectly ordered in order to fulfill it. He forgoes personal connections, is emotionally distant and buries himself in his shameful secret. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a lounge singer, drops in unannounced, it throws his life into chaos. Just like Brandon, there appears to be something very wrong with Sissy. She is self destructive and an emotional wreak. Although their past is never addressed in the film, it’s clear that something awful has happened to both of them. There are moments where they seem to get along, but others where Brandon lashes out at Sissy with a terrible anger. The movie is tragic, and it appears as though Brandon’s situation may never improve.
I truly believe that Michael Fassbender should have been recognized by the Academy for this role. While I understand the politics regarding why he was overlooked, it would have been nice to see the Academy take a chance and nominate his riveting, and heartbreaking performance. Carey Mulligan is also good here as Sissy, though the role was a little too confined for her to really shine the way she has in previous films.
I found Steve McQueen’s sympathetic look into the dark, and often misunderstood world of a sex addict refreshing. It’s a controversial topic, indeed, the medical community seems to be split regarding whether sex addiction actually exists. When we do hear about it, sex addiction is all too often sensationalized by media, or winds up at the butt end of jokes. McQueen shows us a different side of a problem that is no laughing matter. Rather than showing Brandon reveling in sex, we are shown that it has become a necessary ritual for him. The camera often gets uncomfortably close to his face during intercourse and orgasm. He doesn’t look happy. In fact, he seems to loathe his actions so much, that he can’t bring himself to have sex with a woman he is genuinely interested in. He pursues sex relentlessly, picking up men and women (sexual preferences don’t seem to matter to him, it’s only the act he is interested in) and risking his job by filling his work desktop with porn. As the film progresses, we watch Brandon fall further into a spiral of self destructive behaviour. At one point in the film he approaches a woman at a bar, and explains in detail the lewd things he wants to do to her. Her boyfriend, who is beside her, confronts Brandon, and beats him up as he is leaving.
Strengths aside, Shame is not without its flaws. This slice of life film moves along at a very slow and methodical pace, which will not be to everyone’s tastes. Although I found the majority of it fascinating, the tail end of the film really drags. Some scenes also teeter on the edge of pretentiousness, such as Sissy’s bizarre, and super slowed rendition of “New York New York”. The scene just barely works, and showcases one of Brandon’s rare scenes of emotional honesty, yet it felt a little too surreal for the rest of the film, and doesn’t quite fit.
While not perfect, Shame is a powerful film. I commend Steve McQueen for an unwavering portrayal of such a controversial and misunderstood subject.