How does one tackle such a taboo subject matter as sex addiction without coming off as exploitative? Apparently Steve McQueen has the answer, and considering all the praise his most recent film Shame has gotten, the critics seem to agree. Shame, a story about a man suffering from sex addiction whose world is disturbed by the arrival of his estranged struggling artist sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), reunites McQueen with Michael Fassbender, whom he worked with in 2008’s Hunger.
Fassbender plays Brandon, whose addiction is so severe that it encompasses everything in his life. At work, his computer has to be confiscated and cleaned out because it is filled with porn of the vilest sort. When he’s not jerking himself off in the shower, he goes on online sexcapades via webcam, or calling prostitute after prostitute in one night. After his sister crashes at his apartment, he finds his personal space invaded in more ways than one. Finding it difficult to satisfy his urges with his sister in the same room, Brandon tries the old-fashioned approach at getting intimate: he asks out a coworker, Maria, who he has been eyeing for a while but, interestingly enough, never approached. Maria and he hit it off, but for Brandon this is unfamiliar territory, and he is thoroughly uncomfortable about the spontaneity and self-consciousness of it all; so much so that he can’t even get aroused when he and Maria have sex. Despite having bedded many women, Brandon is a relationship virgin, and although viewers such as myself would love to know what traumatic experience led Brandon down this road, we are never privy to his emotional baggage.
The film is as bare and hollow as its main character, with little dialogue and none of the flashy visual stylings of its artsier peers. It’s clear within the first half of the film that both Brandon and Sissy have emotional problems, however the root of that is never explored in the film. In fact, McQueen and co-scribe Abi Morgan seem to have gone out of their way to strip the film out of all back story, leaving the audience guessing about where these emotional issues come from. While this storytelling device worked in the sense that it mirrored Brandon’s lack of intimacy with everyone, I personally found it difficult to relate to any of the characters. And perhaps that was the point, however it dulled the film’s climax a bit for me.
Big cities can be brutal and unforgiving, especially New York. Amid all the hustle and bustle of Wall Street and Times Square, meaningful connections can be hard to come by or maintain. I had expected there to be a little bit more of this type of theme, or at least perhaps just visually captured, especially after seeing Carey Mulligan’s character Sissy perform the melancholy “New York, New York”. The song was performed in such a way that it was easy to discern it as a cry for help rather than a couple minutes worth of bluesy entertainment at a posh New York lounge.
Michael Fassbender’s performance, as expected, was well done. He was raw and uninhibited, and for those 100 minutes he was that troubled guy consumed by his addiction. I liked that although there was a great deal of graphic nudity, it never felt sexy or erotic. It felt invasive, inappropriate and dirty - shameful, to be exact. Carey Mulligan’s Sissy was frenetic and all over the place, the complete opposite to her brother’s self-contained turmoil. She delivered a commendable performance that would have been pitch perfect if it was delivered with a little more careless abandon.
Overall, I thought the film was well done in terms of editing and performance, however I felt like it needed a bit more meat (pun intended) in the story. Because sex addiction is rarely depicted on screen (unless you count Californication, which I don’t), I felt that the audience needed a little bit more of a hand (wink, wink) to be able to understand it as a sickness not unlike any other addiction. I also liked some of the insightful, thought-provoking moments in the film, such as the instance where Brandon’s boss, David (played by James Badge Dale), says that it takes a sick person to have so much porn stored in their computer, while just having cheated on his wife the night before. It was almost a commentary on how it seems almost socially acceptable to cheat on your spouse or lover but somehow pornography, which is usually something people engage with in solitude, still has the bigger stigma.
Since we were deprived of whatever back story these characters may have had, it was difficult to emotionally invest in the film. In hindsight this makes sense, because it made me as a viewer feel as though the main characters were holding me at arms length, never feeling comfortable enough to ever get too intimate. While I probably wouldn’t watch the film again, I thought it was interesting, and from a filmmaking perspective, daring and provocative.