Sex addiction is a topic that has garnered plenty of media focus over the past few years, but it’s a subject that, up until Shame, had not really been examined in film to such a degree. The reasons behind this are unclear; perhaps it’s because many don’t take it seriously as a condition, or maybe it’s that studios feel it would be too much of a risqué subject that would deter people from seeing it. Whatever the reason, the topic has finally been addressed and has been done so in a film that’s intense, shocking and sometimes harrowing.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a 30-something New York bachelor; he’s successful, has a good job and a decent apartment. However, he also has an unflinching sex addiction that he must balance with his regular work and social life on a day-to-day basis. Brandon seeks out different sexual partners nightly and resorts to masturbating several times a day, even at work, to satisfy his urges. He seems relatively at ease with how he manages his life until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up unexpectedly. This throws Brandon’s life into turmoil as he tries to come to terms with his sister’s arrival and still manage his fervent addiction.
The desire for sexual satisfaction consumes Brandon and it’s a constant search for his next fix, eventually forcing him to do whatever it takes to quell his urges. However, true satisfaction is something that, no matter the lengths he goes to, he never really attains. At no point is the film erotic; Brandon never seems to truly enjoy his encounters, but rather sees them as a means to an end. He’s scratching an itch, merely getting a hit before moving onto the next one. The only time Brandon attempts a relationship approaching normal, he’s awkward, uncomfortable and unable to perform as he otherwise would.
Shame marks the second time that director Steve McQueen has employed Michael Fassbender as his leading male, after 2008’s Hunger, and it’s clear he manages to get the best out of him. Fassbender’s performance is superb and he shows off the full spectrum of emotions as the struggling Brandon. It’s no surprise that McQueen is using Fassbender again in his next film, Twelve Years a Slave, which is due out some time next year. Mulligan also deserves mention as the clearly emotionally damaged invader of Brandon’s precariously balanced life. She has less time and scope to really develop her character (which is down to the script, not her), but she does well with what she’s given.
In terms of cinematography, Shame is absolutely stunning. The film does a fantastic job of capturing the vibrancy of New York without resorting to showing the big landmarks to qualify the film’s location – this is real New York. We see the palatial offices of the financial district when Brandon is comfortable with his life, but also see the seedy underbelly of a city that never sleeps when he is at his most desperate. McQueen’s use of the long take is prevalent throughout the film, really allowing us the ability to get more from the characters and the scenes and pushing the actors in terms of how invested they can become in their characters.
However, the film isn’t without its flaws, the majority of which come from the script. Whilst we are given an insight into Brandon’s life and how his addiction affects him, we are left in the dark somewhat as to the causes of his behaviour. We are given glimpses as to the root cause, but for some this may be a little obtuse. What is suggested to us may be deemed somewhat stereotypical and even a little easy as a behavioural catalyst. Whilst films shouldn’t have to spell everything out to a viewer, a certain level of exposition is important and perhaps Shame falls slightly short on this front. Fast forward and the film’s resolution is also lacking somewhat. We are given little indication as to the ramifications of the past hour and a half’s viewing or where the characters’ journey is headed. We are left without an answer as to how sex addiction can be overcome, if at all. As a character film, this works well enough, but it is most definitely not the examination of sex addiction that the film is billed as.
That said, Shame is one of the standout films of 2011, and how it was completely ignored by The Academy is, frankly, a little sad. For direction, cinematography and the actor’s performances, a nomination is the least it deserved. The film is not for the faint hearted, and most definitely not for the prudish, but for those curious about the topic of sex addiction and how deeply affecting it can be, Shame is essential viewing.
Words: Chris Thomson