Shame (2011)

Shame (2011) – A lot of people don’t take sex addiction seriously. We turn into teenagers and start giggling about the “sex” part without really contemplating the addiction. Not to mention the general problem of differentiating between people who are addicted to something and people who just like it a lot. Example: I like to drink a lot. However, I can and do easily get through most days without a drop of alcohol so even if I really get trashed I can safely say I’m not an alcoholic. Sex is trickier because it’s something pretty much everyone wants, and something most men want a lot. So people claim “oh yeah, I’m a sex addict all right, hehe” without any real comprehension of what that entails. Can they make it through a work day without an orgasm? Are they blowing tons of money on porn and prostitutes? Just like a drug addict will destroy their whole life with drugs, a sex addict will destroy his life in pursuit of getting off.

In Steve McQueen’s new film (the British director, not the [dead] American movie star) Shame, Michael Fassbender gives a harrowing performance as Brandon Sullivan, a full-blown sex addict. He is successful and works at a software company. He meets women at bars and hooks up with them. Nothing strange about that. His obnoxious (and married) boss David (James Badge Dale) attempts to do the same. When at home, he watches internet porn. Less ideal, but not exactly unusual. He hires prostitutes. Okay, now we’re getting into some bad territory. He can’t make it through a work day without sneaking off to the bathroom to jack off. Brandon is a fucked-up person. Even while swimming in an ocean of sex with attractive women Brandon never once looks like he’s enjoying himself. It’s not desire for him, it’s compulsion. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the film where he basically eye fucks this woman on the subway. She’s clearly enjoying the attentions of this handsome stranger. In another movie this scene would be sexy. As underscored by the tragic strings of the film’s soundtrack, in this movie it reeks of a horrible desperation.

Fassbender is fearless in the lead role. Not just because of the nudity (and actually given his… natural talents, I don’t know that it required any great boldness to appear nude) but because of his level of commitment to Brandon’s quest of self-destruction. The other great performance of this movie comes from Carey Mulligan as Sissy, Brandon’s equally fucked-up sister. She’s not a sex addict but there’s a desperation and neediness to her and she has got some serious dependency issues. She stays with Brandon while working as a singer in a club. She performs the most heartbreaking version of the usually-happy “New York, New York” you are ever likely to hear. She has one line to Brandon saying “[they’re]not bad people, [they] just come from the same bad place.” It’s never elaborated on what she’s referring to but whatever childhood produced this pair could not have been good. Much the way it never fills in backstory, the film offers no concrete resolution. You don’t know if Brandon continues on his mission to destroy himself one orgasm at a time or if he gets the help he so obviously needs. Given the content of the movie, the former is more likely. Shame is a film filled with sex that is among the least sexy films ever made. It’s a harrowing and at times horrifying character study of a man caught in a downward spiral. The French term for orgasm is “le petite morte” which literally translates as “the little death.” Shame is a movie that exemplifies that.

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