Shame (2011) Directed by Steve McQueen. With Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.
It’s difficult to think of a film that deals with the very real issue of sex addiction with as much fearless truthfulness as Shame. Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon, a middle class New Yorker with a good job and a comfortable life – that is until his sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan comes along and throws his routine into disarray. In terms of story, this is very much a character study of a man trying to function in the real world with an all consuming affliction. Brandon’s shame is what propels him. With each selfish act of sex, he digs himself a deeper hole of self-indulgence that distances him from any kind of emotional connection, to the extent that he finds himself cut off and unresponsive – even from his own sister. Like any addict, it’s as if in order to function, he needs a bigger hit of shame to cancel out the previous one.
The bravery and intimacy of Fassbender’s performance is both surprising and captivating. From full-frontal nudity to deeply emotional scenes, his honesty is admirable and utterly breathtaking. Carey Mulligan’s ‘Sissy’ is similarly mixed up. It’s hinted that both siblings have had dark childhood’s, which continue to haunt them into their present day. Both punish themselves in differing ways, though of the two, it’s Sissy who tries most to reach out and emotionally engage. There are long sex scenes, but they aren’t in any way erotic or exploitative. The sex is Brandon’s way of numbing himself as his pain and desperation grows deeper with each sordid encounter.
Steve McQueen’s direction is a thing of beauty. For the most part it’s unfussy and allows the fine acting to draw you in. One restaurant scene between Brandon and a potential female suitor features a slow camera push-in that subconsciously feeds the sense of being more and more involved in the conversation. Another beautifully captured piece of non-verbal chemistry on the subway between Brandon and a female passenger is charged with a tangible air of mutually repressed sexual desire. Use of lighting and music is also powerful and exquisitely applied. Brandon’s slow self implosion is a painful watch, his character isn’t a bad man – just self repressed and badly damaged, and McQueen’s full-on handling of the subject matter combined with Fassbender’s remarkable portrayal deserves great credit. 4.5/5