Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Shame is the new Steve McQueen film starring Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan, a wealthy white collar office worker who suffers from sex addiction. Although outwardly, Brandon is good looking and has a successful career, his addiction dominates his life and causes him to be insular and ashamed. He compulsively needs to have sex, craving it as a chain-smoker would crave cigarettes. He cannot go a normal working day without having to retreat to the bathroom to masturbate. It’s an awkward life to say the least.
The opening act of the film is an interesting insight into what this life with sex addiction is like. On paper, casting a handsome actor whose character is a wealthy New Yorker might sound like the sex addiction could be glamourized or hard to empathize with. It is a credit to McQueen and Fassbender then that despite all these supposed assets, we can see that the character of Brandon Sullivan is patently miserable.
Take Brandon’s high rise apartment. It looks like something out of a catalogue. It has little character or any indiciation that Brandon has hobbies beyond fornicating. And he can’t ever invite anyone to his home that isn’t a potential mate because the mearest investigation of a wardrobe, laptop or cabinet will uncover a mountain of porn and sex toys. As for Fassbender, he is one of those fantastic actors who can convey so much on his face without having to contort or exaggerate. We can read his expressions as someone who rapidly alternates between lust and shame. This often manifests as intense rapid bursts of the former followed by prolonged feelings of the latter. He lives a wretched life and I left sorry for him.
I remember when I first began to learn the drums and practised every day that whenever I listened to music, I would tune out from the other instruments and only hear the drums. So it is for Sullivan with sex. When he sees a crowd of people on the subway, he doesn’t see strangers, he eyes up potential one night stands. When he goes jogging at night, his eagle eyed vision immediately notices when there is a couple that can be seen having sex in an apartment window. Although he tries to live the life of a normal person, he is single-minded in his subconscious.
Brandon’s compact and carefully ordered world is turned upside down by the arrival of Sissy, his quirky yet troubled sister. She announces that she has no job or home and will be staying with Brandon for a time. Straight away, we notice there is something off about their relationship. It’s never really explicitly stated but Sissy’s comfort at being naked around Brandon and his discomfort at physical contact with her gives us possible clues as to the origin’s of Brandon’s disorder and Sissy’s disfunction.
Sissy has a disastrous impact on Brandon’s life. She clearly needs a caretaker and Brandon is unable to be that person. After Sissy finds work singing at a nightclub, she further complicated Brandon’s life by sleeping with his married co-worker in his bed. This pushes Brandon to escape his apartment and also try for a normal monogomous relationship of his own. It goes about as well as you can imagine. In one of the film’s few scenes where McQueen really indulges in humour, Brandon has a way too honest conversation with a potential girlfriend when he is out to dinner and this is punctuated by an incredibly awkward waiter.
Gradually things begin to spiral out of control for Brandon and Sissy. Both are in desperate need of a rock, of some form of stability and neither is there to provide it for the other. Both Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are incredible and engaging in their roles. The scene that stays in my mind with Fassbender is the horrifying look of anguish in his face near the end of the film when he visits the brothel. It is absolutely terrifying. As for Mulligan, I first saw her as the naive young schoolgirl in The Engagement three years ago. Her transformation into Sissy Sullivan here is remarkable.
Shame is a difficult film to watch at times and the ending offers no easy answers. Brandon and Sissy are compelling flawed characters and the film is left open to interpretation whether Brandon finds his redemption in the final scene on the subway. I suspect that he doesn’t but thats just me. There is some pretty racy content in this film so you’ll want to put the kids to bed first and not put on the DVD when the in-laws are visiting but if you get a chance to watch it, Shame is a film that shows a director and two fine actors in the prime of their careers.