Shame is Steve Mcqueen’s second film, working again with Michael Fassbender, and it’s easy to tell from the title what perspective the film takes on sex addiction. Giving it a different title, say, ‘Liberation’, may have worked in its favour as an ironic statement , but from start to finish its message is clear- sex can be just as destructive as an addiction to any drug.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a well off executive with an ambiguous job that pays enough for a high rise apartment, but his work life is never a feature. What matters is that he has enough disposable cash to pick up women in bars- and when that fails, prostitutes. The film opens with a repetitive sequence: Brandon gets out of bed, deletes the messages on his answering machine, then masturbates before leaving for work. He’s a man who relies on routine, one that is destroyed when he finds his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) showering in his apartment.
Her introduction as an unwelcome interloper sets the tone for their relationship, as his reaction to her presence ranges from barely tolerant to outright hostile. He doesn’t seem to outright hate her, but rather what her intrusion on his life represents- an interruption to the routine that’s been holding his life together. With that gone, Brandon’s addiction begins to spiral out of control, leaving him no choice but to feed it with increasingly erratic means.
The film has ignited a lot of discussion around the topic of sex addiction, and whether Shame reinforces the idea that it is a real and debilitating condition. For the record, there is no consensus on the reality of the condition. Despite the subject matter this is not relevant to the crux of the film, as it is more concerned with the exploration of a man incapable of human affection.
The ‘Shame’ of the film’s title is ostensibly Brandon’s, but its not something he is willing, or even capable of expressing. About halfway through the film he attempts to break his pattern by taking a co-worker out to dinner. He arrives late, but manages to win her over with grace and charm (not to mention Fassbender’s completely unreasonable handsomeness). The date ends well, and the following morning he invites her back to his apartment and finds himself incapable of performing. It is implied that this is because he actually likes her. Sissy fares no better, her attempts to get his attention seem woefully misguided. Yet she persists, perhaps because she knows more about his condition than the film ever truly lets on.
This ambiguity has since become a point of contention. If you’re looking for a histrionic, expository monologue explaining the sadness that has befallen Brandon and Sissy as children that has turned them into dysfunctional adults, but god damn, now that we’ve had this loud discussion we can move on and become better people- well, you’ll be disappointed. Perhaps that’s why the Oscars ignored this film. Shame offers something much better than award bait, an honest and often confronting story of trying (and sometimes failing) to deal with severe emotional trauma.
Shame is now screening in selected cinemas nationally.
Words: William Godfrey