Shame is not for everyone. As it’s NC-17 rating suggests, there are graphic depictions of sex in a varying number of positions and intensity. That being said- and pardon the phrase- but it is a shame that all of the talk about Shame is focusing solely on the sex, because in between all the coitus, there is a fine film at work boasting a pair of pitch-perfect performances.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is wealthy, soft-spoken man. He is also a sex addict who fills his spare time with sex with whomever he can seduce or purchase. When not having sex, he consumes copious amounts of Internet pornography; “You’re hard drive is filthy,” says his boss after his office computer has been searched, who then goes on to list all the different porn genres found on it. It’s a long, sticky list of all kinds of perversion.
Sex addiction has become a punch line nowadays, something politicians and celebrities use when they have been caught philandering. Sex addiction is synonymous with “really liking sex,” and in the case of the two aforementioned groups, it is just an excuse. But the sex addiction in Shame looks like a real, ugly addiction that is not about pleasure, but compulsive consumption. Sex isn’t fun in Shame, for us or for Brandon; it is painful.
Being nude on camera is often deemed as courageous, but baring oneself emotionally is far more brave and difficult. Fassbender does both, and it is exposing his character’s muddy soul that makes Shame a true film and not pornographic. Portraying Brandon as a deviant and a monster would be too easy and would render the film a pointless, self-absorbed exploitation film, but Fassbender gives his character a humanity that makes him conflicted, complicated and sympathetic. It is this humanity that makes the film and shows just how good an actor Fassbender is.
Brandon manages his sex addiction by living a solitary life, but that safety net of isolation unravels when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up unexpectedly. Sissy is as emotionally needy as Brandon is sexually, and she desperately clings to anything that resembles a real connection no matter how much it painfully isn’t. Mulligan, like her co-star, takes what could have been a “tragic, weepy nightingale” role and gives it real depth. Whether she is sobbingly proclaiming her love to an ex-boyfriend over the phone or pushing for an all-too-close relationship with her despondent brother (the latter of which is never fully explained, but it is ever so odd), Mulligan displays frailty quite beautifully on screen.
Shame has a very distinct art house film style, and though this sort of approach leads to, frankly, a baggy and boring film, director Steve McQueen (not that Steve McQueen) knows when to be contemplative, and when to move along. There are several long shots where the camera does not move, which highlights the actors’ strengths and a sense of realism that makes for an intimacy between the film and the audience.
In a film where intimacy is out of reach for its characters, Shame makes for a truly intimate experience, both sexually and emotionally. For some, the sex will be too much for to stomach, and it is understandable that some will not want to participate; sex in Shame is disturbing and ugly and not pleasant to watch. But the film is not called Shame for nothing, and those willing to sit through it will be surprised at how good and haunting it really is.