Sex addict Brandon Sullivan is compelled to fornicate, but he can derive no pleasure or satisfaction from it. This state of suspended animation, where the rest of life is only a lull between orgasms, is the subject of director Steve McQueen’s new film, “Shame,” starring Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a New Yorker unable to control his constant lust for la petite mort. In a typical day, Brandon masturbates first in the shower and then on the toilet at work, has sex with a stranger under a bridge, peruses his copious digital porn collection, watches a girl strip via webcam, drops by a gay bar for a quick blow-job, and finishes by hiring two prostitutes for an impromptu orgy in an anonymous apartment.
The sex in this film is neither titillating nor erotic. McQueen films it all at a dispassionate distance, the camera shots displaying a glacial, almost runic, calm as Brandon transverses the city. Particularly impressive is a single smooth tracking shot of a jogging Fassbender, surrounded by the evidence of teeming population, yet indelibly alone.
Sexual passion is reduced to its most basic physical function—as bodies thrash and seminal fluid flies, intercourse ceases to be enjoyable and becomes an ordeal. When Brandon does try to engineer a relationship that involves emotional intimacy with a co-worker named Marianne (Nicole Behari), he is unable to perform in bed. Sex without feeling is his only release.
The catalyst that might shake Brandon out of this relentless purgatory is the arrival of his sister. Played by Carey Mulligan, Sissy is a frantic, needy wreck who flings herself at the nearest man, who just happens to be Brandon’s odious boss, Dave (James Badge Dale). An involvement beyond the mere familial is hinted at in Brandon and Sissy’s relationship—he walks in on her naked in the shower and she walks in on him masturbating in the bathroom, both without comment, but these encounters never crystallize incestuously. Instead, the latter part of the film veers into mildly disappointing melodrama.
The lack of satisfying denouement exposes the central question hanging over the film—why is Brandon this way? Fassbender gives an absolutely five-star performance, making his recent snub for this film in the Best Actor category by the Academy both cowardly and ludicrous. However, Brandon’s character, which could have been developed by his relationship with Sissy, remains crucially unexplained save her tantalizing suggestion to him, “We’re not bad people; we just come from a bad place.”
What we are left with is a veritable montage of misery, emotionally engaging only insofar as we can believe that Brandon’s constant sexual exploits are actually killing him inside. Fassbender conveys this remarkably well, dutifully pumping away, his face contorted in a rictus grimace of self-loathing and disgust. Beyond this brief moment though, Brandon remains a mystery.
As a portrait of sex addiction, and of a certain kind of modern metrosexual isolation, “Shame” makes a compelling, if grim, viewing experience. As a portrait of a complete human being however, it leaves much to be desired. McQueen’s detached approach reduces an emotional journey to the simple movement of bodies in space. Perhaps this is the point: only when the sex on screen is stripped of all extraneous baggage can an audience assume a view of it analogous to Brandon’s. However, this Spartan quality ultimately means that the only feeling left when the credits roll isn’t shame at all, but disgust.
—Staff writer Caleb J. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.