A brooding character study that achieves something we never explored before, but it's all up to you to figure it out yourself
When you think about sex addiction, you often pass it off as a joke thinking "he's just a guy who love having sex. I'm jealous". These days with so many celebrity scandals in the way featuring failed libidos and adultery all having to assassinate one's reputation, the subject matter is never taken seriously, often placed in the media to stir up some sensation, but the great thing about it is that at least we have something to talk about.
But for Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen), the visual artist-director behind the hard-to-swallow Hunger, the subject matter here in Shame is as grim as gravel collaborating again with Michael Fassbender, one of 2011's men-of-the-moment. Shame is the American Psycho-esque film with a Lost in Translation vibe about, well for the majority, sex addiction and Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan who, on the surface, is a successful marketing executive living in New York in great shape and in a posh apartment. However within, he lives in solitude transcending into his sexual addiction which involves chronic masturbation, ordering prostitutes and having one-night stands and digs deep into porn on the internet. But when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes into his apartment, she disrupts his privacy that would let out his embarrassing secrets. Sissy, in her own right, is terribly disturbed having became a failure in terms of her relationships and her singing career.
For a while, the film has little plot and is moderately slow in pace, but the theme often comes across Brandon's lifestyle which is both sophisticated and depressing at the same time along with the level of sex depicted. His addiction is almost the equivalent of that with drugs and alcohol. Even though the character would feel that way, I never actually believed it... well, almost didn't. Like with Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame has a main character who is incredibly messed up and yet I had little sympathy for. Where MMMM had you seeing an ex-member of a cult spiral out of control, it can be said the same for a sex addict. But for both movies the reason I never felt for them is because they are unaware at what is going on with them. He's never aware of a state that would be lethal by the beginning until the 31st minute and that would've been unengaging had that went on.
You will hear this from everybody, but Michael Fassbender is just sublime playing bravely and releasing his inner Marlon Brando as a damaged man who secludes himself to pleasure himself. I've mentioned before that this film parallels with American Psycho in which we have an arrogant and suave young man on the top of the business world living in a lifestyle men would have hope for except beneath, instead of a serial killer you get... well, you get the point. I must mention as well that not only does the graphic depiction of sex will turn off viewers, but the character himself will. Because of his loneliness and alienation, Brandon is typically rude to his work colleagues, particularly his boss (James Badge Dale) and to his sister who is already on the verge of damaging herself further. His addiction ruined the way he would relate and connect to people and to be intimate with others. Carey Mulligan is also on par with Fassbender as his sister and the first frame of her is brutal to the point where it also sets and establish a character and unlike him, we would want to support her. Another highlight is Mulligan's melancholy rendition of New York, New York which will have you glued with tears. As we see both characters interact, there is tension built up from the dialogue even if the film has little (Mulligan: "I'm trying to help you, Fassbender: "You come in here. You're a weight on me. You're a burden").
With that all said, Shame's hypnotic and stylish aesthetic is juxtaposed to many of the characters' problems. It is well shot with McQueen taking two notable long takes of Fassbender jogging six blocks on a tracking angle and a close up that is almost a nod to the famous shot in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious. The cinematography by Harry Bobbitt is extremely stunning to look at and the mix of classical and 80s jukebox music makes it a very well made film. Not to mention that New York had never looked so vivid.
Looking back from all the films I've seen from 2011, this is pretty much the most original since we've never had a subject matter like this explored in film with so much explicit subtlety and really its focal point is Michael Fassbender whose performance carries the film with so much density. For most of us, this film would've been much better had it looked in further detail of sex addiction in which the film is primarily about. But for me, that is quite about enough. It's also about self-destruction, failure, the abuse of our bodies and the traps that lead to our isolation. I might have the balls to see it again and for me, Shame sets a high standard to films which would display sex in a dark and psychological manner... and it rarely is sexy.