Finally, here is a film that does not treat sex addiction as tea-time laughing stock (addicted to sex, are you serious?). Steve McQueen the Director unleashes his sophomore effort and gives birth to a work of art so uncompromising you’ll have a hard time shaking it off your mind. Never has been a film so committed in portraying sexuality with all its darkest, soul-baring intensity since Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial, taboo-breaking Last Tango in Paris. The comparison is fitting – both films have broken grounds with the ratings board, challenging those puritans from MPAA to finally grow up and watch adult films, and ultimately reassessing our perceptions about sex, sexuality and hedonism. It is also intelligent, a grown-up film for grown-up people that says a lot of truthful things about 21st century cosmopolitan life. With unflinching honesty, Shame (a title so pertinent to the subject matter) does to sex addiction what Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream did to drugs – peeling away glorification to reveal a ruthless, shattering world of meaningless flirtations for a quick fuck underneath a subway drawn with dirty graffiti, of uncontrolled midday urges behind toilet cubicles, of empty orgasms masquerading pain and inconsolable loneliness.
And whether Michael Fassbender’s penis takes centre stage in this movie is beside the point (although it did make a cameo appearance, which would annihilate all pause buttons when the DVD comes out in the future) – it’s Fassbender’s immersive performance as despairing Manhattanite Brandon Sullivan that grounds Shame into heartbreaking verisimilitude (if you allow me to be word-swanky). He suffers private torment, whilst remaining cooly svelte, calm and collected on the outside like most cinematic lonely New Yorkers, Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s American Psycho. But Brandon’s is a more anguished beast, a slave to his insatiable impulses. Sex for him is mechanical. The urge for release is far more important than pleasure. There is a shot of Brandon’s face, as he engages in what could have been a titillating ménage-à-trois, reaching an orgasm but to a devastating effect. It’s an expression that cannot be read as a face experiencing orgiastic satisfaction, but of profound torment, a cry of sorrow. It’s a merciless look into one man’s despair and his inability to connect, and McQueen’s camera stares into scenes of utter desolation without any hint of remorse or judgment.
His private suffering is soon disturbed by the arrival of passionate yet emotionally needy sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan adding yet another peach of a role to her increasingly formidable CV), who breaks every little space left in Brandon’s inner life. “You’re a burden to me,” Brandon decries to her, only for us to realise that real burden is the affliction he could never break free of. Despite the bordering-incestuous relationship portrayed here, both Brandon and Sissy seem to have been torn apart by some dark past which the film only hinted at, and their present impulses. And the film wisely finds the eloquence by keeping all details at bay, and letting the scenes speak for themselves. Watch Mulligan’s slow-burn rendition of “New York, New York”, where the camera barely pulls away from the character singing – it’s all there in Sissy’s face, a lifetime of pain, longing, wretchedness, uncertainty – cut to Brandon with a tear rolling down his cheek. Dialogue – zilch. Emotional depth – breathtaking.
Shame may be the film to be reckoned with, come end-of-the-year’s best movie list. It is perhaps one of the most compelling, fluidly composed and emotionally draining films about a human affliction, with a taut yet perceptive direction by McQueen and mature, blisteringly heartbreaking performances by both Fassbender and Mulligan.