The fact that the dim-witted and near-sighted MPAA has slapped an NC-17 rating on Steve McQueen’s “Shame” implies that there is something prurient about this film, whose central figure is a sex addict, struggling with his demons.
But, as intense and involving as this film is, the last thing it is would be sexy. Yes, there’s nudity. Yes, there are scenes of people copulating energetically. But sexy? Hardly.
In fact, McQueen’s film, which he cowrote with Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”), is the opposite. “Shame,” opening in limited release Friday (12.2.11), is a story of addiction and a man battling his own compulsions. It’s a story about the agony of being unable to keep them in check and the toll that takes on his life.
The man’s name is Brandon and he’s played with what could be described as a kind of silent fury by the cool, aloof Michael Fassbender. But that aloofness is a façade, a mask Brandon wears to keep his unquenchable habit from being discovered.
Brandon is a sex addict who needs sex in one form or the other the same way an alcoholic needs a drink or a heroin addict needs a fix: often, as often as possible, several times a day. It’s not a question of satisfaction or pleasure; like any true addict, it’s about numbing oneself to the world in whatever way works.
So his computer is choked with porn; he’s masturbating several times a day in the office bathroom. And he’s on the prowl constantly, having sex with whoever he can entice up to his apartment, then showing them the door. Willing women, prostitutes – it doesn’t matter as long as he gets off.
And, like any high-functioning addict, he finds a way to make it work (though his boss is curious why his office computer is in constant need of virus removal). Brandon has created a ritual by which he lives, turning his apartment into a kind of fortress of privacy in which to indulge his shameful compulsion.
That is knocked haywire, however, when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up unannounced and needs to stay with him. Suddenly his space has been invaded, his routine thrown out of whack, his ritual disturbed.
It nearly pushes him to a breakdown. He is like a junkie who can’t connect with his dealer because Sissy seems to always be in his apartment. A scene in which Brandon, in need of his own fix, has to listen while his sister romps with a new sexual playmate of her own is as wrenchingly painful as any of the withdrawal scenes in “The Man with the Golden Arm” or “Requiem for a Dream.”
McQueen, who demonstrated the virtues of stillness in his debut film, “Hunger,” still understands the power of keeping his camera relatively locked down and his editing from becoming frenzied. He wants to take a long, hard look at a man in the throes of something deeply painful and achingly interior – and he does so, with Fassbender as his perfectly honed vehicle.
I’ve read other critics who have dismissed this film as being too cool, too much at an emotional remove – but that misses the steaming intensity of Fassbender’s inner battle. Brandon is a man in deep pain; addiction is a disease, but also a symptom of something seriously disturbing that needs to be muffled in some way – by drugs, by alcohol or, in this case, by furious sex.
And fury is indeed the emotion that comes to mind, when Brandon abandons himself to a sexual binge. There’s very little pleasure involved in the sex depicted in “Shame,” a film that features one of the year’s most deeply felt performances and one of the most tortured characters in a long time.