Tuesday, 29 May 2012


Shame offers an unpretentious invitation to be a voyeur. It offers a view of a brother and sister hopelessly locked into their separate and occasionally colliding cycles of addiction, neither able to understand, analyse, seek help or break free. We know nothing of the context that brings them to this point. We are shown very little of the detail of their daily routines or work except those that feed their addictions. At the end of the film we are none-the-wiser but I for one know my emotions have been given a severe work-out. What a ride.

Set in Manhattan, New York, the film follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender) who seemingly has a fairly senior position in an anonymous company in skyscraper. Brandon's boss is David (James Badge Dale) and together they indulge in flirtatious drunken encounters after work and at weekends. The difference between the two is that David otherwise presents as being happily married with a family, Brandon lives in almost reclusive isolation in a high-rise apartment and he is addicted to sex.

Sissy (Carey Mulligan), is Brandon's sister who is in desperate need of love and acceptance and bums her way through LA and New York seeking gigs as a nightclub singer. Sissy has no place to call home and no permanent friends - simply a list of transient contacts. She turns to Brandon for support and affection - the very things he is unable to offer. We are not told what kind of childhood they experienced but the fact that they appear naked before one another once or twice with little sense of regret might suggest some kind of sexual abuse. This might account for their screwed up emotions, or their screwed up emotions may simply be a symptom of the malaise of the pointlessness of their daily existence. The film doesn't invite an exploration of these questions.

We are relentless observers of Brandon's need to experience orgasm. After waking in the shower, inciting a girl on the Subway to experience one herself, in the toilet cubicle at work, in a hotel with hooker, in his apartment with a hooker, through online porno sites, through an extensive library of magazines. Sex, sex and sex is the only thing that matters to Brandon. Adding to the feel of voyeurism, the viewer is serially invited to watch him though windows - either in his office, his apartment or on the 30th floor of a hotel where he screws a hooker as she is spreadeagled against the floor to ceiling window. The sexual acts are relentless but Director Steve MacQueen gives them a detached but choreographed grace so they become a recurring refrain like the repeating theme of an overture - a macabre dance of addiction as it were.

Sissy simple needs someone to hold her - anyone, even Brandon will do, but he is incapable of doing so for more than two seconds. On a night out Brandon and David go to hear Sissy sing and inevitably Sissy and Dave have an encounter which, blinded by his addiction, disgusts Brandon. Brandon's inability to hear his sister's cry for help pushes her to extremes.

His addiction pushes him deeper and deeper - until he teams up for dinner with colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie). Recently separated, she begins talking about relationships, love and commitment and is astonished by Brandon's view that relationships are a waste of time. She challenges Brandon's nihilistic view of attachment - again perhaps giving a clue to his past. The evening goes well. Later at work, Brandon approaches Marianne, grabs her and kisses her passionately. They leave the office and check into a hotel. Brandon is on course for another score when his mind becomes troubled, he pulls away and in a state of disarray he apologises and asks Marianne to leave. He descends into a fog of inner despair. Although he later appears to engage in some acts of penitence, it is not altogether clear how he moves on from this crisis in the longer term.

Fassbender's performance is first-class - even though his character is thoroughly unlikeable. He displays the power of addiction with graphic ease and portrays a closed person - closed to emotion, intimacy, the need to be loved and the need to love. Closed even to the pleading needs of his sister. There are long periods with little or no dialogue where the anguish on Brandon's face provides sufficient affective energy to drive the film forward.

Shot with a grey and grainy colour palette, this is a bleak film. If continual and prolonged sex scenes are not your thing, then this film is not for you. The way in which MacQueen explores and depicts sex addiction through the character of Brandon is to be applauded. This is however a story with no real beginning and an unresolved ending and therefore for me is an incomplete story. It, like Brandon, is completely self-contained and self-referencing. I am glad that someone has had the courage to make a film about sex addiction but the narrative needs some back story and it also needs to hold out the hope of change and the possibility of redemption - no matter how distant or potentially unrealistic an option that might seem at present. For the first point I'd give it a 7, for the second a 5, therefore an average would 6/10!

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