I’ll be honest- I didn’t expect a movie about a man struggling with a sex addiction to be overly sexy or even heartwarming. I’d be lying though if I said I didn’t think it would touch on moments of passion between two people and at one point I thought it was going there only to be greeted with one more kick to the genitals. Steve McQueen paints a bleak picture in SHAME and its one that for all its ugliness is at its heart a beautiful piece of work. Beautiful in the way it explores the desperation and pain of an addiction that indeed causes shame due to its provocative and taboo nature.
I feel it’s safe to say SHAME is not a crowd pleaser. You have to know what you are getting into and know that this sort of thing is something you have the capability of enjoying. Not only is it a film about a man with a severe sex addiction, it’s also a dark depressing yet compelling exploration of the needs that drive our day to day lives and how our experiences in life drive us into those needs. What you need to know is that not a single frame of this film that features a lot of human flesh and sexuality is meant to make you feel good or to arouse/entice the viewer. This film destroyed me at several different points by the depths characters sink to and the sadness in their eyes- something I have to stand and applaud the actors for. However, I was also bored during select sections of the film as well which is just something else to be aware of- the film is subtle, quiet and begs for an introspective examination of the events rather than overwhelming slices of dialogue.
Movies that inspire further exploration after it ends are often the best kind. As much as I enjoy reliving high flying special effects in summer blockbusters with friends after the movie I do really love the occasional deep conversations that are born from movies like SHAME that beg the audience to share their interpretations of character actions, back stories and themes. You can read SHAME from more than one perspective that range from the source of the main characters addiction to the dynamic between brother and sister in the film.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, the unfortunate soul suffering from the sex addiction. Carey Mulligan plays his sister Sissy, who moves in unannounced and unknowingly helps to cause Brandon’s shady lifestyle spiral out of control. Fassbender and Mulligan knock their performances out of the park- both nailing the emotional devastation of their characters and have incredible chemistry on screen with each other. The nature of their relationship seems to be the anchor of the issues throughout the film as it remains a mystery as to just what lurks in their past, but obviously it weighs heavy on both of their minds as to how they’ve gotten to where they are. They have one particular exchange near the end that stands out as one of the most compelling and emotionally devastating scenes in the film as it leads to a final series of actions that just snowball and eventually come crashing to an even more heart wrenching interaction.
I mentioned before the amount of naked flesh in the film- and there is plenty- but none of it serves as a means to push across that Brandon enjoys his life. Sure, this good looking and successful dude is having almost no issue getting laid, but his face never has an ounce of passion or joy and instead is filled with sadness, pain and of course shame. I love the film for its complex and emotional study of a human being that in a state of pure agony and you can see it in his eyes when he just stares blankly at his pornography, or at attractive women on the subway- Brandon doesn’t see affection, he sees release of pain or just plain release as if sex is just like releasing air from his lungs. His sex life resembles that of a late night Cinemax skin flick- without the eroticism or occasional unintended comedy.
SHAME is filmed with an artistic eye and utilizes plenty of long and uncomfortable takes of characters just staring or characters confronting each other. There are also lingering shots of Michael Fassbender lounging around his apartment in the buff, giving the audience plenty of the actors naughty bits to absorb with their eyes rather they like it or not. As emotionally shaken as I was at times it cannot be ignored that there are times where the film drags a bit, but never to an extent that I could ever feel as though the film was losing me. SHAME is a fascinating look into the life of an addict- one that is not meant for the prudes of the world but for those with a profound love of cinema that aims to test the way we perceive things we may not always understand.