Two years ago a film called Hunger premiered out of competition directed by some guy calling himself Steve McQueen. Steve McQueen? There was a dude making movies who was naming himself after the actor Steve McQueen? Weird. It didn’t matter though because as soon as people saw Hunger it became clear that the oddness of the guy’s name wasn’t nearly as important as the fact that he was clearly one of the most talented filmmakers to emerge in the last five years. On top of that, Hunger also introduced the world to Michael Fassbender, who did a phenomenal job portraying the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in that film and since then has done high profile work in films ranging from Fish Tank to Inglourious Basterds to X-Men: First Class. Now the two of them have reunited in McQueen’s sophomore effort, Shame, and this time all eyes are watching them with incredible scrutiny.
The shamed party in the film is Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a well paid yuppie living in New York. The guy seems to have the perfect life to most outside observers; he’s young, attractive, confident, and wealthy. What these outside observers don’t know is that Brandon is a sex addict with a habit of consuming copious amounts of porn on the internet and in print and then hiring prostitutes for anonymous and sometimes rough sex. This has kept him isolated, but it’s become a routine for him and he seems more or less comfortable in it. This all changes when his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives unexpectedly and plans to stay with him for a few weeks, an act that will ultimately force him to confront the self destructive elements of his lifestyle.
There have been other films made involving sex addiction, most notably Paul Schrader’s 2002 Bob Crane biopic Auto-Focus, but there have been this clearly focused on the topic and that might be because the topic isn’t taken all that seriously by the general public. The recent South Park episode called “Sexual Healing,” which ridiculed shamed celebrities like Tiger Woods for using sexual addiction as an excuse for their behavior, summed up most people’s conception of sexual addiction: that it was largely an excuse for usual male promiscuity. Shame is an attempt to take the issue seriously, to frame sexual addiction as every bit as miserable as addictions to drugs, alcohol, or gambling. It certainly doesn’t depict Fassbender’s character as a happy “swinging single” even if he has all the money and status that such a lifestyle would normally entail. That’s because his libido has gone far beyond any kind of moderation. At one point we see his porn collection, which takes up much of the space in his closet, and whenever he is shown “getting some” he seems to divine no joy from the experience.
The sheer misery that this character has brought upon himself is shown most vividly in a sequence midway through the film when he tries to actually start a conventional relationship with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie). They seem to be one another’s intellectual equals over the course of a date and in another life you could see them becoming a happy couple, but as soon as they try to consummate the relationship Brandon’s taste (or should I say need) for kink takes over; the man simply cannot make love when he feels a constant urge to fuck. Then there’s his relationship with his sister, which is awkward at best and cruel at worst. His sister clearly wants to reach out to him, but what are they going to talk about? His porn collection? As she lives at his apartment and it becomes increasingly hard to hide his lifestyle from her he becomes more and more cruel to her in order to hide his shame.
Fassbender’s excellent performance goes a long way towards helping the audience understand this character and his problem. That’s not easy because this guy acts like a real prick at times and generating sympathy for him can be a truly herculean task. While Fassbender understandably dominates discussions of the film, Carey Mulligan’s work in the movie is also really strong and worthy of consideration. McQueen lives up to his potential as well, having not missed a beat from his bold and highly confident work directing Hunger. He’s still mixing excellent Hollywood caliber cinematography with some really unconventional editing. There’s not a lot here that’s quite as stylistically bold as the thirty minute conversation sequence from Hunger, but it’s still clearly the work of a very talented individual with different training and sensibilities from most filmmakers.
When the film debuted at the Venice Film Festival there was some chatter about the film’s quality and a lot more chatter about the film’s ability to penetrate the U.S. market given its sexually explicit content. This of course led to predictable counter-articles bemoaning the puritanical hypocrisy of American audiences and of the MPAA, but this is in some ways undercut by the fact that most of the films that actually run into ratings problems tend to be, in their own blue state way, just as puritanical as the audiences that are supposedly unable to handle them. Most of the films that get the NC-17 or Unrated films that get released feature lots of unpleasantly “unerotic” material like Monica Bellucci being brutally raped in Irréversible or Jennifer Connelly going ass-to-ass for drug money in Requiem for a Dream. Rarely will you ever see an NC-17 rated movie that actually makes sex look like a slightly enjoyable activity (with John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus being a notable exception), possibly because they don’t want people confusing their work with pornography. As you can probably guess from the title, Shame is not an exception to this. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, as much as I’d like to see more “sex positive” films get this kind of serious treatment there’s no denying that the messy downsides of sex are also worthy of cinematic exploration and it often isn’t explored as well as it’s explored here.
**** out of Four