James Franco: “This movie will never be released because my performance would be deemed ‘too provocative for America’.”
Jenna Maloney (Jane Krakowski): “I wish I lived in France!”
(from 30 Rock)
A friend recently disclosed his reluctance to see the new Steve McQueen film Shame. He bases his decision on his unequivocal belief that sex addiction is mythical. I told him “then consider it a work of science fiction”. And indeed Shame might as well be about a space alien who seems to have crash-landed on Earth, as we follow around a man who seems able to simulate human behaviour without actually being one himself.
This alien-like creature is Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), a handsome, accomplished 30-something New Yorker who lives in a stylish but cold apartment in a high-rise within a short walk of Madison Square Garden. His daily routine involves waking up to masturbate in the shower, surfing for Internet pornography at the office, retreating to the men’s room to commit the Sin of Onan several more times, having casual encounters after work, participating in online sex, having casual encounters and even hiring escorts late at night. On occasion he goes on runs around his posh neighbourhood, but it’s only when he has no other form of release. The next day, he repeats his cycle.
Into this life parachutes his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who seems to have escaped or been released from an institution of some kind. When we first see her, she’s wearing a hospital bracelet. Where did she come from? Filmmaker Steve McQueen doesn’t give this away, and Brandon couldn’t care less. In fact, the screenplay he devised with British playwright Abi Morgan is deliberately sketchy on the details of Brandon’s and Sissy’s lives before this latest encounter. Sissy, who clearly has boundary issues, moves into the apartment and occasionally performs as a lounge singer. Mulligan delivers the single most joyless version of “New York, New York” you will ever hear, in five uninterrupted minutes of pure heartbreak and desperation. She is neediness incarnate, and Brandon refuses to have that near him, because it would require him to engage emotionally with another human being outside of a carnal exchange. They share a dark past that is only hinted at, but McQueen isn’t interested in exploring that. It would have taken away from seeing the world through Brandon’s haunted eyes.
Brandon reminds me strongly of Fellini’s 1976 version of Casanova. That free-flowing film has a lewd lovemaking contest and is dedicated to the exploits of its title character in loving detail. The strongest image that came to mind while watching Shame is the sequence where Casanova falls in love with, and makes love to, a mechanical doll come to life and dressed as a woman. There’s a strong correlation between Brandon and this scene, in that the sex is mechanical (literally for Casanova) and love cannot be returned or reciprocated. The difference is that in all of his sexual exploits, Brandon is the doll, the unfeeling outline of a human being serving a function but devoid of emotional maturity or attachment. He can’t even recognize normal human calls for help. Watch his reaction to his voicemails and the disastrous aftermath of his failed attempt to pick up a woman who was at a shady bar with her equally shady boyfriend. It tells you a lot about Brandon.
The fact that Brandon eventually has an encounter with a man in a bathhouse is no surprise. He does not love anyone, or makes himself out as anyone to be loved. McQueen’s film boldly brings us inside the experience of the sex addict so intimately that we understand how Brandon sees other human beings: as nothing more than the functions they serve in relation to his own needs and desires, devoid of genuine human connection. Man, woman, after a while it makes no difference to Brandon, who charts his life from one orgasm to the next. It’s no wonder Brandon hates Sissy so much: she represents real pain, suffering and all attendant characteristics that make her so human, worlds away from his empty clinical existence. Taking the earlier analogy I made between Brandon and a space alien, it seems fitting because he appears to be one, able to mimic human behaviour but without feeling or exhibiting emotion. Perhaps a leftover android from Steven Spielberg’s A.I., and specifically the gigolo android played by Jude Law in that film. This is why it’s so strange to see Brandon on a date. What happens when he begins to form an actual human connection with his date is the key to everything in the film.
Shame is a challenging film that isn’t interested in rationalizing, psychoanalyzing or even giving any insight into its protagonist’s condition. McQueen simply gives a chance for us to be in the headspace of someone with such an affliction. It’s not a message film about an addict who breaks down, recognizes his disease (if you believe this is one), and decides to do something about it. There are no affirmations, just the experience of being with such a person for two hours, without understanding it. Shame doesn’t offer emotional uplift or catharsis, for that would be beside the point. Its almost non-verbal screenplay forces Fassbender to communicate much through his actions. Watch how visceral he is while he seeks and is about to reach orgasm. Brandon does not enjoy any of this. Every one of his conquests – whose names neither we nor he even know – is another extension of his self-loathing. Fassbender embodies his hatred, his internal abyss, his shame (perhaps the only faintly human characteristic he relates to) so thoroughly that it’s almost a silent performance, and painful to watch. Matching him is Mulligan, worlds away from the dreamy-eyed schoolgirl she so effortlessly portrayed in An Education, embodying self-destruction so completely it’s almost unbearable. Her presence makes Brandon’s shame run deeper.
Is it a narrative disaster to portray experience without sticking with a conventional story arc? There were quite a few walkouts on this disturbing movie while I was there, and two women fled in a fit of giggles at the first instance of full-frontal male nudity. One of my companions uttered an exasperated “Finally!” when the credits rolled and he bolted from his seat. But there were more of us sitting in utter transfixed silence, digesting everything we had seen, quietly speaking amongst ourselves, and even trying to figure out a simple question: did we even like the film? The common thread in our post-film discussion was that it was certainly a challenge and we appreciated the risks the director took, even if it left us all feeling more than a little bit uncomfortable.
Shame is undoubtedly flawed, given the lack of narrative momentum at times and the nearly wordless script. McQueen’s daring direction and the fearless performances by Fassbender and Mulligan, however, makes this film more provocative than it would have been had everything been analyzed. It’s raw, frayed at the edges and will haunt you for days.