Directed by Steve McQueen, a visual artist who turned to filmmaking with 2008’s Hunger, and co-written by McQueen and Abi Morgan, Shame tells the bleak story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a financially successful Manhattan office worker whose sex addiction is spiraling out of control. When not engaging in quickies with the women he meets in bars, he has call girls come to his sleek, modern apartment. (It’s the sort of austere steel-and-glass apartment that is filmmaking shorthand for emotionally barren lives.)
In the absence of women Brandon is glued to online porn — his laptop at home churns through X-rated websites and even his computer at work is clogged with viruses from adult sites. He masturbates in the shower in the morning and at work he slips away to the men’s room to do it again.
For Brandon, sex is not so much an activity as an environment he needs to immerse himself in around the clock. You can’t describe him as a libertine or a hedonist, because pleasure hardly seems to figure into his erotomania. He is ruled by a desperate compulsion, and the unsightly grimace on his face in the shower and the men’s room makes clear that each orgasm is at best only a momentary release.
One shrewd edit spells out Brandon’s predicament all too clearly. Home from work, he sits down at his laptop with a beer and a carton of Chinese take-out. Cut — he’s still at his laptop, his leg jiggling, his whole body focused on the screen. He’s far more alert and engaged here than in any other scene we’ve watched so far. The beer and the carton of take-out are pushed aside; he may have forgotten about them the minute he sat down. We have no way of knowing whether this is five minutes later or three hours later, and it’s likely that Brandon himself has no idea either.
McQueen opts for a patient, observational style here, to depict Brandon’s life without sensationalism. The chilly vibe of the filmmaking also reflects Brandon’s pronounced emotional detachment.
The long-take, wide-shot perspective pays off particularly well in a scene where Brandon meets his attractive African-American co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) for dinner. It’s their first date, in an upscale restaurant; they barely know each other. We watch Brandon sitting down to join Marianne (he’s significantly late, and barely cognizant of his rudeness), followed by the interjections of a maladroit waiter, and several minutes of strained banter between Brandon and Marianne, all in one shot, from across the restaurant. The fixed camera setup puts the viewer in the position of studying this couple the way an anthropologist might. We witness the awkwardness, the feints and parries, and the tentative breakthroughs, where it looks like they might truly hit it off.
Engaging with women on anything but the most basic physical level is a strain for Brandon. His difficulties with Marianne are nothing compared to his relationship with his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a fledgling jazz singer who invites herself to crash at his apartment. Sissy is a mess herself, but in the opposite way from self-contained Brandon. Whereas he’s cracking up from the pressure of maintaining an illusion of control to the outside world, Sissy is loud, emotional, sloppy and very, very needy. Not only is Sissy the one woman Brandon can’t hit on, she demands an emotional intimacy that he’s entirely unprepared to give.
The tension and hostility between brother and sister is presented without explanation. Early in the film Brandon ignores a rambling phone message from Sissy in which she states, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” We never find out what that means, why neither of them has anyone else in their lives, or why they’re such wrecks.
I admire filmmaking that declines to spell things out too explicitly, that asks the viewer to engage with the movie and work a little. It’s a relief to encounter scripts that eschew the tidy explanations for characters’ motivations favored by Hollywood, what David Mamet and others have disparaged as “the rubber ducky” school of drama. (See note at left.) But Shame takes the stringent, we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-backstories approach too far. The storytelling is minimalist to a fault. In Brandon it posits a worst-case scenario without any context that would help us understand him.
The artistry and intelligence that went into making Shame are evident in every scene, if not every shot, thanks to DP Sean Bobbitt’s icily elegant work. But the withholding aspect of the script undermines the movie as it builds toward what should be the dramatic climax, when Brandon goes on the sex addict’s equivalent of a bender. It culminates in a drug-fueled threesome with two hookers; McQueen is depicting carnality here, sex without a trace of sensuality. But the NC-17 debauchery with the two hookers goes on too long, as if the director were determined to inspire disgust in the audience in any way possible.
The problem for this viewer is that even as Brandon bottoms out, he remains a cipher. Shame left me with so many unanswered questions that it felt not only unsatisfying but hollow, a bit of a cheat.
The script suggests that sex addiction and an addiction to porn are the same thing. But compulsory horndog Brandon, who dresses like a million bucks and has a matinee idol’s larger-than-life handsomeness, can pick up a beautiful woman at a bar with little more than eye contact. If one-night stands come so easily to him, what does he get out of sleazy porn sites? Is it boredom, a need for ever kinkier thrills? But a guy with this much money, who’s this familiar with Manhattan call girls and brothels, can presumably scratch any itch he wants. The screenplay presents a case study in extreme sex addiction without shedding much light on it.
For more on Michael Fassbender, click here for a review of Hex (2004).