The irony of Shame is that if director/writer Steve McQueen had given his main character, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a drug or alcohol addiction instead of a sex addiction, this film would have been taken more seriously. Viewers, take note: this isn’t a porno film dressed up as art film about angsty characters. This is a serious, compelling character study about a man in the grip of an addiction that gives him a “high”, but no pleasure.
On the outside, Brandon looks the part of a successful New Yorker. He’s good looking, well-groomed, has a good job, and a nice apartment in the big city. Inside, however, Brandon is falling apart. He needs his fix several times a day–at home, at work, it doesn’t matter–and his fix is sex, any way he can get it (masturbation, Internet chat rooms, one night stands, prostitutes, the seedy backroom of a gay nightclub). His addiction is taking over his life. While Brandon is the master of the mechanical sex act, true intimacy frightens him and he actively pushes away the two women who actually care for him (Marianne, the co-worker with whom he has a briefly affair and Sissy, his equally screwed up sister).
As Brandon, Fassbender alternates between predatory and desperate. In the opening scenes of the film, he flirts with a woman on the subway and then follows her off the train, much like a stalker. In another scene, he is involved in a three way with two prostitutes, but, far from enjoying it, his face is contorted in pain and despair. After a while, you come to dread the next sexual encounter since it’s like watching Brandon cut himself with a razor blade.
Let’s be upfront: yes, there is a lot of nudity in this film, but it has never been less sexy. Or, to put it another way, there are more “sexy” scenes in Jane Eyre where there is no nudity than there is in Shame although the latter has way more naked people.
Carey Mulligan plays Sissy, Brandon’s sister, a sometime jazz singer who’s as self-destructive as her brother. Nothing is explicitly stated about their childhood, but the implication is that they came from an abusive home. Brandon obviously cares about his sister, but he also deeply resents her clingy, dependent nature and her constant demands on him and that push-pull forms the basis of their dysfunctional family dynamic.
Steve McQueen (the British director, not the American actor) creates a largely silent film where the emphasis is on the actors’ facial expressions. There is very little dialogue and, in many of the scenes, the camera is in behind the actors furthering the sense of isolation. One of the underlying themes of the movie is the emptiness of a society where sex is ubiquitous, but true human connection is hard to find.