Sex. It’s an activity integral to our social culture which is much more than rarely discussed. For many college students, having sex is a top priority. But for the protagonist of the provocative new film Shame, addiction turns sex into an agonizing and bleak exercise.
Rising star Michael Fassbender provides a riveting and raw performance as Brandon. To the outside world, he appears as a slick and successful businessman. In reality, he is so addicted to sex it occupies his mind and time constantly.
One day, his emotionally-damaged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his pristine apartment. She has nowhere else to go and hopes her brother can provide her shelter and support. While Brandon reluctantly agrees, her presence begins to disrupt his routine, which revolves around sex, masturbation and porn.
A theme of ambiguity persists throughout the film, especially in the relationship between Brandon and Sissy. Their bodies are often too close; they see each other naked but don’t look away. The film makes viewers wonder what happened to them in the past, but withholds any explanation.
This is not an easy film to watch by any means. Director Steve McQueen uses excruciatingly long takes to present the range of his characters’ devastating emotions. Yes, devastating is the appropriate word, as Brandon’s addiction renders sex as appealing as having a lobotomy.
Every orgasm Brandon has becomes increasingly painful to watch, as they are conceived out of necessity rather than pleasure.
It should be noted that this movie is rated NC-17, and while one can argue the legitimacy of the rating system, this is still not a movie young teens should see. It remains quite graphic, with some of the sex scenes bordering on softcore porn. The realistic nature of these scenes is appropriate and necessary to the film, but it will likely make some moviegoers uncomfortable.
The focus on the skill of the filmmaker, however, does occasionally overshadow the actual story. There is a scene in which Sissy sings a wonderful cover of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” at a bar, but it goes on far too long. Her rendition is slow and full of emotion, but after nearly five minutes of close-ups the scene drags on, becoming self-indulgent.
Fassbender gives the male performance of the year. It’s the kind of performance viewers can admire even as it makes them feel terrible, making Shame so effective and depressing that seeing it once is more than sufficient.