Any picture that opens with Michael Fassbender getting out of bed butt naked, and in the following couple of minutes goes to show his junk to you in all of its glory while Fassbender walks past the camera as he soullessly paces back and forth the rooms of his flat, even going as far as showing him do his morning business in the John, a film like that can’t be bad in my book.
If one were to imagine what a film dealing with sex addiction from a male perspective would be like, the story told here is not what you would most likely come up with your first, second or even fifth try. Steve McQueen has successfully crafted an incredibly complicated and fascinating story about the fragility and inherent weakness of a man and one could not come up with a more appropriate title for it than Shame. It beautifully encapsulates everything we are about to learn and experience in the following 101 minutes and somehow it manages to do it without ever feeling particularly filthy or decadent, it’s more of a captivating character drama with an unusual topic matter.
In essence Shame is an incredibly gripping look at addiction, a real tour de force, and much to its credit it manages to avoid all the typical trappings of the subject matter. You will find the stereotypical string of meaningless hook ups, use of prostitutes, excessive amounts of porn consumed, etc. addressed during the course of the story but rather than crossing off boxes on the addiction cliché checklist, they are always brought up and used in a surprisingly well thought-out context where they tend serve a specific and significant purpose, usually offering you a momentary but still deep insight into the tumultuous (soul) life of Brandon, the protagonist played by Michael Fassbender. Sometimes it means revealing the degree of Brandon’s addiction in elaborately subtle ways, as shown by one early scene in the film where Brandon discovers that his computer has been taken away from his office desk. It’s a seemingly unimportant scene followed by an insignificant exchange where Brandon learns the PC was taken by the IT Department because they discovered a virus on it. This is then directly followed to Brandon going to the office bathroom to masturbate. As some clever viewers might have guessed, there’s a direction connection between these three scenes, and it is later revealed that Brandon’s PC was infected by a virus due to the massive amounts of pornography found on its hard drive. I.e. the addiction is running rampant even at the place of his work during working hours, controlling him to such a degree that he is acting entirely unprofessionally by downloading porn directly to his workstation computer to feed and satiate his habit, in complete contrast to how calm, calm and in control he seems to appear from the outside. Another great example is when Brandon spontaneously decides to get rid of everything enabling his addiction from his apartment and then attempts to pursue a purely normal and proper relationship with a female co-worker, only to fail to perform sexually after he’s professed his feelings to her and they are about to have passionate, meaningful, romantic, emotionally fueled intercourse in a hotel room. For a man who seemed to have insatiable sex drive, he is suddenly rendered impotent. And yet, in the next very scene, we see him having rough, aggressive sex with a prostitute in the same hotel room only moments later in time, revealing that he is only capable of having sex when it feeds his amoral, emotionally empty addiction. It’s pure, mechanical, cold performance. Any hint of real love and emotions leave him completely unable to gain an erection in a cruel twist of irony.
As you can imagine, sex addiction is one of those things that’s very hard to get right and depict properly in film, largely due to the deep emotional and psychological aspects of it that are not easy to convey in a format that is so heavily reliant on visuals. Not to say it can’t be done, but you can easily not depict in very meaningful way. Lars von Trier did a very unique and different type pf depiction of sex addiction and its self-destructive nature in his two volume hardcore magnum opus, Nymphomaniac, and as much as I adore that film, I feel McQueen is able to explore more thoroughly the internal emotional toll, agony and turmoil that the affliction brings to its bearer. In Nymphomaniac it simply became more of a semi-pretentious art project, more concerned with being cerebral and artistic in the end rather than examining the main character’s inner mechanics and pain in a more deeper probe. In that in mind, in contrast to von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Shame gets far closer and personal, delivering quite strong visceral experience as a whole, which is why in certain aspects it transcends Lars’ picture, though it would be very hard to decipher which I ultimately would like better.
One of perhaps the most genius tools McQueen utilizes in the film is Brandon’s complicated and very disastrous relationship with his sister Sissy, whose sudden reappearance is a massive irruption to Brandon’s isolated and concealed and shameful lifestyle. The dynamic between the two siblings is one key aspect for why the film is able to get so much out of Brandon’s addiction and give it more nuance and hidden depths. Not only is Sissy a good mirror to Brandon’s own self-destructive nature by being an equally messed up individual, she also works as a perfect tool to underline just how broken and fragile Brandon is deep down, under the mask of his faux carefreeness. In contrast to Brandon, Sissy is far less conspicuous about how damaged she is, and the role of the hostile, more responsible older brother who demands his wayward sister to get her act together that Brandon automatically assumes in her presence is very telling of the degree of self loathing Brandon unconsciously must feel about himself, and which he projects into Sissy. It’s a trick that works marvelously to get the point across and McQueen uses it with deadly precision to really get deep into the subject matter.
Nothing really exemplifies the shameful and dangerous nature of Brandon’s addiction better than the sequence near the end, after a night where we’ve witnessed Brandon slipping hard back to the warm, sleazy embrace of his addiction and where his self-wallowing and sick pursuit for an easy fix had him ignore a message from his sister for the entire night while he indulged his throbbing need for orgasmic release through numerous different sexual encounters, both with men and women. It’s now the following morning, and after a foreboding encounter with a possible suicide attempt at the subway station, Brandon suddenly thinks of Sissy. Not being able to contact Sissy through the phone, sobered up Brandon rushes back to his apartment, only to find Sissy on the bathroom floor, bleeding to death, clearly pushed to attempting suicide once more by the last exchange that the sibling pair had, where in the midst of heated arguing, Brandon dismissed her pleas about being family and how they are suppose to help one another by demanding her to leave and calling her a burden, and Brandon’s subsequent refusal to call her back after her message. One can only imagine the agonizing guilt that Brandon must have felt when he realized how his addiction had directly made him push his sister to slicing her wrists open and then kept him away from helping her sooner by having be away the entire night.
To find the right way to conclude such a complicated story without relying into clichés or corny uplifting and more than a little blasé redemptive salvation messages must have been very tough nut for McQueen and his writing partner Abi Morgan to crack, but their ultimate answer to this very conundrum proves to be quite clever. What they’ve done is choose to wrap up the film via a stark contrasting, but still very low key finale that recreates a scene from the beginning of the film, where we saw Brandon attempting and ultimately failing to solicit sex from a married woman that he encountered in the subway, with few subtle but significant changes added to the scene indicate the character development in Brandon.The first noticeable difference is that the roles are now entirely reversed. It’s the married woman who aggressively pursues Brandon’s notice, not the other way around. And unlike how it originally played out, where the married woman responded with a subtle aroused smile to Brandon’s flirtatious looks, we see Brandon’s response to her wooing appears, surprisingly, to be entirely empty, almost melancholic. Something seems to have fundamentally changed in Brandon after Sissy’s suicide attempt. Could it be he no longer finds pleasure in spontaneous sexual encounters? Has he has lost his sex drive entirely? Is there a chance he has won his addiction entirely and no longer finds no meaning in sex? As you are asking these questions, the film gives us the one last remaining deviation from the original scene. Again, the married woman is the one taking the offense, mimicking Brandon’s advances from their earlier encounter. Closing in on her stop, she is shown rising up from her seat, and with very smitten and playful smile, she boldly places herself next to the door, in front of Brandon who is still sitting and looking slightly bewildered. It mirrors their initial interaction perfectly, containing the same intimate sexual suggestiveness in the small closed space they share in public. No words are needed to convey the vibrant sexual tension that they are feeling.
And here’s the clincher. Just as the train is about to reach the station and we, after a long and dragging tease where Brandon enigmatically is just looking at the woman without giving us a hint of what is going through his head, are finally going to see what is going to happen next, the film cuts to black. Is Brandon is going to stand up and follow her? Has Brandon truly been able to conquer his addiction or was he on the verge of letting go and descending back into the decadent, hollow, dark path of his former life? Rather than showing you, which could so easily ruin the entire film if you got less than satisfying definite answer, McQueen and Morgan simply have chosen to let the viewer’s own imagination to take over, drawing their own conclusions. And nothing is better than playing the guessing game, where you’re free to make your own interpretations and analysis and debate them with other people.