Michael Fassbender stars in the provocative sex addiction drama Shame (2011)
The most important thing to consider while watching Shame, Steve McQueen's soaring follow-up to 2008's Hunger, is that its portrayal of addiction is not exclusive to sex. It's about sex, yes, but Brandon's (Michael Fassbender) unmitigated exploration of unquenchable desire would also be recognizable to alcohol and substance abusers; those who have felt a craving bleed from their veins, pulse through their being and demand, despite better judgement, that they meet that fix. As Glenn Kenny notes in his fantastic AV Club piece 'Shame and snickering', "the trashing of the porn stash could just as well have been emptying a vial into a toilet, or a bottle of Scotch, expensive or not, down the sink." He's spot-on. This is a film about one kind of addiction, but it speaks for them all. So many of Shame's critics have complained about the fact that McQueen, along with co-writer Abi Morgan and star Michael Fassbender, have found nothing new to say about sex addiction, don't arrive at a satisfying conclusion and fail to present a message to their audience. But how could they? Addiction is such an intimate disease, spreading through and devouring its victims' insides. Rather than lecture we must see it through the prism of a man (understand that I specify "man" because Brandon is the lead in Shame; women can be addicts too, but McQueen and Morgan have stated that their one-on-one research unearthed that a vast majority of addicts - or those willing to be interviewed - were males).
Shame doesn't present a reason for Brandon's addiction. He's an intelligent thirty-something Manhattanite, holding down an office job which demands that he sit, isolated, encased in glass. His is a 24/7 life, defined by the stench of morning coffee, rising smog, greying skies and neon traffic signs, honking cars and insipid elevator music. The glass is not, as some have suggested, a metaphor for his addiction. It is the reality of modern life. It's true that an over-reliance on technology could have fed into Brandon's weaknesses, and allowed sex to become his vice, but such ideas are never explicitly stated by the screenplay. The arrival of Brandon's loose-cannon sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) holds deeper, darker implications. Several of their scenes bristle with an uncomfortable sexual energy, particularly when Sissy crawls into her brother's bed in the dead of night, snuggling up to him for comfort. He flies into a rage, but we wonder what could have provoked that reaction. Something in their past? More likely that he's ashamed of the impulse which has just consumed him. After all, she's completely unattainable; the one woman he can't fuck. Interestingly, at a Q&A conducted at the Curzon Mayfair this Tuesday, McQueen and Morgan seemed totally open to this idea, even if they didn't validate it.
The fact is, we don't need to be told a reason. Look hard enough and you'll find your own. The genius of McQueen's film is that it allows the audience freedom to explore these peoples lives, never dictating their inner thoughts or histories. When Brandon goes on a date with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) the conversation slips into a recognizably awkward rhythm, allowing Brandon to open up about previously ambiguous facets of his life; specifically his past relationships. Later in the film he takes her to a hotel for sex, but is unable to carry through with the act. Much debate has been focused around this scene as well, which is the saddest in the whole film. Brandon has reached a point in his addiction where sex is entirely empty and unfulfilling, and just something he has to do to satisfy an uncontrollable impulse. But I got the sense that he really cared for Marianne as a person, and therefore actively chooses not to have sex with her, for that has long ceased to be an outlet of positive energy; passion or love. Sex is his vice, and I think Brandon consciously decides to not drag Marianne into something painful and cyclic. This would explain the next scene's outright descent into hell, wherein he drifts from a bruising bar encounter through the neon-lit gay underground, leading up to that devastating threesome where, in a moment of ecstatic anguish, he breaks the fourth wall. McQueen's employment of soft focuses lenses somehow allows the scene a dystopic quality - the sensual act suddenly adopting a fevered harshness.
Fassbender's magnetic performance is the film's ace card (surely he's the only serious contender for Best Actor at this year's Academy Awards?), but Mulligan also excels as the vivacious, free-spirited Sissy. My second viewing of Shame revealed many conflicting layers masked by her confident exterior, which I now believe to be an even more depressing façade than Brandon's. And her fate is anything but clearcut, as I had previously imagined; that warbling rendition of 'New York, New York' is basically like a suicide note. I knew the song was about loneliness, but here it straddles the bleak/beautiful line in compelling and mysterious ways. The film isn't quite perfect (the ending is too neat, but still far more ambiguous than some claim), but Shame remains as emotionally ravaging as it did on my first viewing, when I was ready to crown it the best film of 2011's LFF. One thing's for sure: the bar for 2012 has been set extraordinarily high.
Shame is released into UK cinemas on January 13th.