In Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort Shame, Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a highly successful, exceptionally handsome, but emotionally barren, thirty-something living in New York City. In the film’s opening scene we see Brandon lying on icy blue sheets staring out at nothing; his apartment is spacious, chic, in a great location, but it lacks the warmth of most hotel rooms. Brandon goes through a series of sexual encounters that never require having to learn anyone’s last name. He is as sleek, as orderly, and as cold as stainless steel. Everything and everyone just slides off him; at least until his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up uninvited to shower in his bathroom. She turns the music on, leaves messes behind in his flat, sleeps with his boss, and, worst of all, makes emotional demands on him.
Brandon has styled his entire existence around feeling nothing at all for anyone, whereas Sissy is an open wound who feels everything. Sissy moves in ostensibly because she needs a place to stay but, in reality, because of her obvious desperation to form with her brother a closer bond. Brandon is equally desperate to avoid that closeness and frequently unleashes a vitriolic rage against his sister. Frankly, I found these scenes more shocking than the sight of male anatomy or two women kissing. What’s most disturbing about Brandon’s anger is the cause of it; not, as he claims, because of his sister’s promiscuity, drinking, slovenliness, or any of the other qualities that make her a difficult roommate, but because she’s the one person who still can provoke an emotional response from him. He hates her for it. And loves her, too.
Shame has received a lot of media attention due to the movie’s infamous NC-17 rating. Newsweek even featured it for its cover article on the supposedly growing epidemic of sex addiction. Shame is definitely a movie that’s worth discussion and debate, but it seems that people are focusing in the wrong direction. Yes, Shame features sex—lots and lots of sex—deliberately filmed to be as unerotic as possible. Yes, there is nudity (and this is where I think most of the excitement is coming from), full-frontal male nudity that gives us all a chance to admire how well-proportioned Michael Fassbender is. Carey Mulligan is also featured completely naked on screen as well, but somehow that didn’t get as much publicity. We’re all very used to seeing A-list actresses shed their clothes, but it’s still novel when men do it.
The movie’s blunt sexual aspect tends to obscure where the film’s real power lies, namely in the merciless manner that Fassbender and Mulligan expose their character’s souls rather than their bodies. It’s not clear that Brandon is actually a sex addict; in one of the movies most telling and uncomfortable sequences we see Brandon completely fail to perform when he’s with a woman he has bonded with. We later see him trolling in a bar, but he seems far less interested in picking up the woman he meets then he does in starting a fight with her boyfriend. He craves the beating he gets—then goes out to engage in even more extreme sexual activity. He uses sex (and occasionally drugs), as a means of self-punishment. We’re not sure what the punishment is about, but he and Sissy clearly share a painful past and when she delivers a sad rendition of Sinatra’s normally triumphant classic “New York, New York,” Brandon is brought to tears.
Fassbender is remarkable in showcasing Brandon’s cold emotional wasteland and the torment that triggered it; something happened that made this man do everything in his power not to feel and it’s all the more tantalizing that we don’t know what it is that ruined both him and his sister. Mulligan’s Sissy is all neediness and nerves, clinging to anyone around her as a possible life preserver. Her scarred wrists reflect the damage within. A completely non-sexual scene between her and Brandon towards the end of the film is painful to watch—-and provoked the strongest reaction from the audience.
To say this is not a holiday movie would be the understatement of the century. It is quite simply devastating to watch two people so hell bent on their own self-destruction. The film offers nothing in the sense of catharsis which is why, despite its brilliant performances and striking cinematography, I hesitate to recommend it whole-heartedly. Shame simply isn’t an enjoyable film, but it is an artistically relevant one. It is worth seeing; but you have to ask yourself if you have the necessary fortitude first. You won’t be just paying $11.50 for a ticket and 100 minutes of your time.