Different kinds of addiction have been portrayed numerous times on screen, from heroine to cocaine, from meth to even the addiction to one’s ego. But artist turned director Steve McQueen’s Shame marks the first time that sex addiction has been handled on so hauntingly and superbly on the screen. Michael Fassbender’s sympathetic Brandon is more the ghost of a human, just as the film is more a ghost of an actual story, rather than something as fulfilling as it wishes to be.
Artist turned director Steve McQueen made his first mark on art cinema with 2008’s Hunger, a semi-biopic starring Michael Fassbender depicting Billy Sands, the IRA, and the ensuing hunger strike that Sands would put himself to. The film was an equally cold exploration of the damage and harm that, in a masochistic sense, a person could subject themselves to and how that affected the people around them. Shame follows the same kind of thematic link, with Fassbender’s Brandon a man whose sexual appetites cannot be satisfied. Both are unflinching looks at the subject matter at hand. But McQueen’s precise directing and unsympathetic look at the character separate and distance the audience form making a true emotional connection with Brandon. Not because his problem is one that few audience member will identify with, but because McQueen, by himself, gives the audience little reason to sympathize with him in the first place.
It is no doubt, however, that it is Michael Fassbender who makes Brandon as sympathetic as he can be. Brandon is a man to be pitied, but through the frigid and naked lens that McQueen shoots with, it is Fassbender’s job to make sure that the film is not so cold that it becomes unbearable or repellent. Fassbender imbues his character with the nuance it needs to make the story believable, but even then, it remains more of a skeletal outline of a story than a true one. Nevertheless, the pained looks, the melancholy, and helplessness of such a deviant make what emotion the film does have palpable. Shame, more than Hunger, gives Fassbender the opportunity to play a man who must present himself as the stereotypical metropolitan yuppie who must hide under that successful façade and shelter the deviant and insidious sex addict underneath. Brandon is constantly having sex or masturbating or watching porn. He is insatiable.
As powerful as Fassbender’s performance is, it is not enough to carry the film on its own. Enter Carey Mulligan’s obnoxious Sissy, Brandon’s equally damaged younger sister. Mulligan plays the annoying well enough, and her rendition of “New York, New York” is absolutely heartbreaking. It is what her character reveals in Brandon that makes the film more human that it would have been originally. We are presented with two people who are escaping their pasts, two people whose early life was so damaged that both Brandon and Sissy find ways of manifesting their pain through questionable acts. Sissy can barely hold a relationship together and then starts sleeping with Brandon’s boss; Brandon is addicted to sex. AT every moment of the film, one of the two is self-sabotaging in one way or another, unable to truly find any solace or comfort in anything (or anyone) they do.
Both Brandon and Sissy are unable to escape the demons that are incessantly pursuing them, and they both reach low points that inevitably destroy the other. The relationship between Fassbender and Mulligan is completely believable, and the pain they cause one another is just as convincing. When Brandon runs, he is not only running away from the moans of pleasure of his sister with his boss, he is running away from her completely, as she is a reminder of the past he is trying to avoid and destroy. He may not destroy his past, but he destroys himself, with the drama aided by a chilling classical score by Harry Escot.
It is here where we run into the problem. As chilling and hauntingly beautiful as the film can be, it is just… cold. I have used that adjective several times throughout this review, but there does not seem to be a better way to describe the distance that McQueen creates between the film and its audience, between Brandon and the viewer, and between the damaged sibling relationship and, again, the viewer. Thus, were it not for Fassbender’s excruciatingly powerful performance, the film would be so unbearably sterile that one could barely get through it. The exploration into the human urges and sexual appetites of one man suffering from a debilitating addiction is fine, but the storyline is thin and, at the end, one asks themselves, “Well, that was great, but… what was the point?” For a director whose first project was the big, sinister Hunger, a film that imbued every cold image with some meaning and solace, often rooted in the political activism that Billy Sands was involved in or some religious imagery, Shame, in comparison, seems like it wants to do the same thing, but lack the material to articulate that kind of meaning. It hardly seems the kind of film to speak about all men and women who are sexually addicted, for such a statement in this kind of film would be rather grandiose and pretentious. One often runs into that kind of problem when trying to define or portray a group of people. However, it is equally troubling when you take the film as face value, where you only have Brandon and Sissy and their demons. It lacks the depth that one would expect from this kind of controversial art house film.
Regardless of this, Steve McQueen’s film is immaculate in the technical sense. Even with Brandon’s downfall, every frame perfectly epitomizes that cold, sterile feeling of the film. Brandon’s apartment is surprisingly tidy, its monochromatic textures revealing nary a detail about the man. There is a sense of minimalism to the production, where the color scheme is ice blue at times, and every building that Brandon inhabits or enters is decorated in a scant sense. Only the streets reveal the dirt underneath Brandon’s fingers, as well as the subway. The cinematography is impressive, and the editing style occasionally tiptoes around flashbacks and stream of consciousness. The explicit content of the film is really hardly anything worse one would see on any HBO show, but, it is no secret that the MPAA is an arbitrary system that often has bias against sexuality anyways.
Steve McQueen’s Shame artfully shows the damage that a sexual addict inflicts upon himself and the manifestation of personal demons through the addiction. Michael Fassbender gives a stunning performance, one that deserved more recognition by a certain organization. And while McQueen accomplishes creating a chilling and haunting film, he fails on a human level, never letting his audience really connect with Brandon. The film’s coldness distances the audience, and you after the film, you get the sense that there was something else there, but you don’t know, and are left contemplating the point of the whole thing. Just like the sexual addict in the film, in the end, you’re left a little unsatisfied and wanting a whole lot more.
Carey Mulligan’s heartbreaking performance of “New York, New York”