Shame (Film Review)
Undoubtedly, sex addiction is just as debasing and destructive a disorder as alcoholism or drug dependency. Those who think otherwise need only watch Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ to see the horror it inflicts on its sufferers. Boasting a gripping, involving story, a sympathetic perspective on the experience of sex addicts, and an emotionally captivating performance by Michael Fassbender, ‘Shame’ rises above the potentially exploitative nature of its plot to become one of the most artful and genuine films of the year. Clearly, ‘Shame’ is destined to become a future cult classic.
‘Shame’ tells the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome and successful New York yuppie who works as a designer for a fashion magazine. On the surface, he has it all: a spacious apartment overlooking Central Park, a high salary, and the respect of his boss David (James Badge Dale) and his co-workers. However, Brandon hides a dark secret from his peers. He is secretly a sex addict of the most severe kind: his days at the office are wasted on downloading porn, while his evenings are spent with high-class prostitutes and strangers that he chats up in the nightclubs and bars he frequents. Knowing he could never be faithful to one woman, Brandon lives a life of emotional solitude, staying away from romantic relationships and even close friendships with his co-workers.
However, Brandon’s carefully hidden double life is soon to be shattered with the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). An emotionally unstable singer who has recently been kicked out of her boyfriend’s house, Sissy insists to stay at Brandon’s indefinitely while she searches for a job and an apartment. Instantly, Brandon’s privacy disappears, as Sissy pushes herself into his social and private life. Faced with constant pressure and scrutiny, Brandon takes this opportunity to try and change his ways, even dating a girl Marianna (Nicole Beharie) at the office for the first time in five years. However, like a junkie going cold turkey, this only makes Brandon’s urges increasingly worse. Before long, Brandon finds himself sneaking out of his apartment in the middle of the night, exploring his vices ever further as he explores New York’s seedy and dark underworld.
Obviously, conservative viewers will be uncomfortable at the constant and graphic sexual content on display in ‘Shame’. To call the film pornographic or an erotic thriller though is hugely incorrect and disrespectful to the filmmakers. At its heart, the film is a mature and highly empathetic portrayal of how sex addiction can ruin a person mentally, physically, and emotionally. In fact, only one sex scene carries any genuine warmth and passion, the scene where Brandon and Marianne attempt to consummate their relationship after several dates. All the other sex scenes are cold, clinical, and oddly detached – during the opening montage, none of the faces of Brandon’s conquests are even shown. This emphasises his inability to connect emotionally with people as a result of the emotional cocoon he shrouds himself in. Undoubtedly, ‘Shame’ is the most accurate depiction of sex addiction yet in a mainstream film.
Another strength of ‘Shame’ is its riveting central performance from rising star Michael Fassbender. Easily surpassing all expectations, the role easily ranks as his most memorable date, and was unfairly overlooked at the Oscars. His Brandon is at once complex and contradictory, a man full of charm and intellect, yet also base and crude. In many ways, the character is a modern day Mr. Hyde or the Wolfman – a man of great honour who turns into a carnal beast at night. The way Fassbender explores this physically is nothing short of engrossing; when interacting with his male co-workers, he has a relaxed looseness, casually laughing and conversing with an almost humble ease. As soon as he sees a pretty girl however, his entire physicality changes completely. His body stiffens and he sits up straighter; his eyes go wide and steely, completely fixated on his target. It is the body language of a predator ready to strike, a theme that is continually emphasized throughout the movie. An example is the haunting open sequence, in which Brandon flirts with a girl on the subway using only his eyes and face. Instead of being funny and playful, the piece is accompanied by orchestral music so menacing and ominous, that when combined with Brandon’s wolfish stare, it almost seems like the opening to a vampire or serial killer film. For this scene alone, Fassbender at least deserved a nomination for best actor.
Despite the morally repugnant excesses of the character, ‘Shame’ also deserves merit for sympathising with and raising awareness of mental disorders. Despite everything Brandon does, the audience always understands him, looking at the world through his eyes as he is sucked into a whirlpool of self-destruction and despair. The same can be said of his sister Sissy, who is played magnificently by English actress Carey Mulligan. In many ways; she is a mirror image of Brandon – she is crippled by manic depression which is just as severe as his sex addiction, destroying her relationships and career. Indeed, the resentment the Brandon shows her is due just as much to his hatred of seeing his own reflection as it is for maintaining his privacy. Regardless, the audience is able to empathise with her, with her raw passion and talent being shown beautifully in a lounge scene where she sings a ballad on the harshness of New York life. When she hits rock bottom, it is just as horrifying as when Brandon does, if not more.
Against all odds, ‘Shame’ is truly an artistic triumph. Although casual movie goers will no doubt find it challenging and nihilistic, more patient viewers will find a deeply moving and sympathetic parable of how a disorder can send a man into his own personal hell, and the choices he can make to dig himself in deeper or start on the long road to redemption. A rare modern film which can truly be considered part of the cinematic canon, ‘Shame’ is simply unforgettable from start to finish.
‘Shame’ is currently playing in theatres in Hong Kong and is available on DVD in Shenzhen.