Shame: This Tale of Sex Addiction Blows It
Steve McQueen’s Shame is about a man who is addicted to excess. He wakes in the morning and needs a sexual experience. He self-gratifies at home and at work. He watches porn, hires hookers, and will do absolutely anything to achieve orgasm. Eventually, it is implied, this will lead to his ruin. Excess certainly leads to the film’s ruin– a couple of great performances and some wonderful subtle long shots are canceled out by predictable melodramatic centerpieces which linger on misery nearly to the point of unintentional humor. Michael Fassbender is spellbinding, but the movie is but a fleeting experience.
We meet Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for a long time. When he gets us, we see the title that he’s literally been laying on– SHAME. We soon learn slowly about Brandon’s day-to-day, in a strong beginning sequence. He is often naked, he lives alone save for a visit from the occasional callgirl, and he ignores all phone calls from his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Most of the best scenes show his interactions with other women: his fleeting glances with a woman on the subway really tells us much of what we need to know about his habits, as does his extremely subtle seduction and alleyway encounter of a woman he meets while out with his friend (James Badge Dale) at a nightclub. In one extremely long uninterrupted take, we watch Brandon out on a date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) who fascinates him. We watch him battle with the temptation of vulnerability and the danger of what exposure to others would mean– it’s the best scene in the film.
Soon, Sissy knocks on his door and demands to move in since she has nowhere else to go. This intrusion forces Brandon out of his usual habits to indulge his addictions, and it forces him to become irritable and erratic. Sissy is in a sensitive position right now, with no stable source of income living alone in New York City, which has her already on the verge of a nervous breakdown. McQueen, in a painfully long scene that immediately tossed up a red flag that the film wouldn’t contain the nuance I’d hoped for, showcases Mulligan singing the slowest rendition of “New York, New York” ever, all in close up, with one verse cut away to Fassbender as a single tear rolls down his cheek. The first few lines alone led us directly to the point, but then we have to endure five minutes of it. Therein lies the problem with McQueen’s stylistic choices: when the scene is executed with realism and something resembling subtlety, it works wonders, but when the scene holds the audience’s hand and leads us to the answer, it borders on painful.
In the interest of preventing spoilers, I won’t go into specifics regarding what I felt to be the worst sequences in the film, but needless to say, Brandon’s life spirals downward in the final act. All of the interesting nuance in Fassbender’s performance during portions of the first two thirds of the film spirals down the drain with it. The bigger his emotions have to become in the film, the less affecting the performance becomes. In particular, there are a couple of sexual activities that Brandon engages in with grandiose violins ascending and slow motion thrusting and undulating, which culminate in close shots of Fassbender making a sad face. In context, I give Fassbender some credit, because he’s an intense actor of considerable charisma. Out of context, these scenes would likely get unintentional laughter. Sissy’s plotline in the final act is not only melodramatic, but worse, utterly predictable. The film goes from compelling character study to arthouse Lifetime film very quickly.
Fassbender does everything he can to make the zanier moments real, and he certainly does terrific work throughout the majority of the film, both emotionally and physically naked. It’s a shame his film lets him down and doesn’t give his character a stronger ending. Mulligan has a fairly thankless role as the whiny and aimless sister, but she too does her best. Beharie gives the most consistently interesting performance as the date, and she is the perfect balance for Fassbender. Seeing Brandon interacting with regular people shows the sadness and the depth of his addiction far more effectively than highlighting his sleaze and reveling in his desperation with crescendos and bombast. If the melodrama is what you seek, then you will enjoy Shame more than I did. I felt McQueen gave me a taste of a portrait of sex addiction that was complex and palatable to my tastes and then spoiled it with overindulgence. I appreciate any filmmaker that makes bold memorable choices– it’s a shame this one didn’t pay off.