By now, you’ve heard that director Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort Shame, screening at the 49th New York Film Festival, features Full Frontal Fassbender. Let’s just get this over with: The rumors are true, but the context is misleading. Shame is anything but a Michael Fassbender swoon-fest (although the man is admittedly easy on the eyes). It features plenty of sexual gratuity, for sure, but the visuals come with a price: the incredibly affecting, devastating journey into the psyche of a sex addict.
Fassbender is Brandon, a single professional living alone in New York City whose private urges play out in myriad ways. Prostitutes, porn, public masturbation. Alarmingly, and much to Fassbender’s credit, he never comes off as predatory or creepy. Troubled and charismatic, he’s acting out of compulsion, and his co-conspirators are all willing to aid him. He’s forced to account for his actions when his sister Sissy (the divine Carey Mulligan) shows up and crashes at his place, which is when the film evolves into a fascinating character study not only of sexual depravity, but of sibling relations. And McQueen, as a Londoner, magnificently captures New York City in a cold, anonymous context without sacrificing authenticity or delving into seedy territory.
What’s intriguing about Shame is that McQueen has chosen to contextualize sexual addiction in the way we’ve previously only seen drug addiction. It’s shocking at first, this greeting of the subject with such frankness, yet the dissection becomes almost clinical. At a point, you begin to look beyond the nudity and lurid acts and see the person, blurring in and out of focus, behind it all.
Speaking of focus, McQueen’s vision is unyielding. Many of the long takes, often played out to create discomfort, are reminiscent of Blue Valentine. The film refuses to look away, knowing full well that its audience begs it to. Brandon’s descent is peppered with images of his reflection, growing more warped as the narrative gains momentum. In fact, Sissy’s introduction to us — naked, stepping out of Brandon’s shower — is through a reflection in his bathroom mirror. The metaphor is pretty clear, signifying the distance between the siblings, their emotional disassociation. But that’s what’s so wonderful about McQueen’s style: It’s all right there for you, and it creates a back story without the need for dialogue.
There’s been talk of the sibling relationship in the film, that there’s an incestuous undertone involved. I didn’t see it; when you grow up with a sibling, the boundaries of privacy are blurred. What resonated more was the unspoken history between them — a shared pain, something that deeply scarred them both. As with any trauma, those who experience it either grow together or drift apart. Sissy went the way of the extrovert, the filterless dramatic; Brandon internalized, isolated himself and became lost in his addiction. The friction between the two seems born more of Sissy’s attempts to wrench emotion and connection from Brandon.
To me, a point was also raised regarding the perceived emotional, versus the physical, disconnect in men. Brandon is a person who cannot function on an emotional level — to get through the day is to create checkpoints of release for his compulsion. A laptop playing porn in his kitchen; masturbating in his office bathroom; dipping into a bar for post-work drinks then taking a woman home. Beyond his physical demands, his insurmountable struggle is born from a yearning to instill emotion into his acts. His unraveling is truly moving stuff, but I have to wonder: Would this point have been as effective, or perhaps, more effective, if the lead were played by a woman?
However you choose to interpret it, Shame is one of those rare films that affords every viewer a valid takeaway. The mulling of its players and themes will roil within you, an urge you can’t suppress.