Having Sex in ‘Shame’

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

In his 2005 review of the controversial Korean film “Oldboy,” Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert wrote that it “is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.” Such words cannot be truer for “Shame,” which not only depicts plenty of material that snatches away whatever innocence is left in any viewer, but also peels away the layers of its lead character’s heart down to its very core.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a handsome, 30-something-year-old yuppie living in New York who appears to have everything going for him. However, beneath this seemingly perfect facade is a compulsion with an appetite that can never truly be fulfilled: sex. Every day he finds some way to satisfy himself, whether through physical encounters with women, pornography or masturbation.

In spite of his severe addiction, he conducts his world in an organized manner until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly shows up at his apartment. They already share a strained relationship due to events in their past (which are wisely never disclosed, though incest can arguably be ruled out), but Brandon reluctantly lets her stay. Her presence makes him extremely uncomfortable, and his carnal lifestyle slowly begins to spiral out of his control.

We often reserve the word “experience” to describe big-budget, large-scale blockbusters, but the term wholeheartedly applies to the comparatively low-budget, limited release “Shame.” The film takes its identity as a character study seriously by yanking, not coaxing, the viewer into Brandon’s struggle to keep his sex addiction under control now that Sissy is within the boundaries of his personal space. It should be said, though, that “Shame” is an emotionally exhausting experience, and it’s arguably the most depressing film that I’ve ever watched.

Michael Fassbender, who has had a great year in film, delivers a tour-de-force performance, and it’s not because he’s brave enough to be naked. Brandon isn’t much of a talkative person, so much of what is communicated about him is through the way Fassbender employs his body, particularly his face. Though his face may be stoic at times, there’s no doubt that there’s hunger and pain behind Fassbender’s eyes.

Then there’s Carey Mulligan, whose character is the polar opposite of Fassbender’s. Whereas Brandon prefers to keep to himself, Sissy makes her want for affection known, and becomes unpredictable when pushed over the edge. Sissy is perhaps the most unhinged character that Mulligan will ever play, and she works wonders with her portrayal, especially when she sings a heartbreaking rendition of the song “New York, New York.”

The driving force behind “Shame” is the very nature of Brandon’s sex addiction and how it affects his sexual encounters. When he does have sex, Brandon is not motivated by passion or love for his partner; instead, he just wants to achieve his own orgasm. This, along with the fact that he experiences orgasms multiple times throughout the day, shows that sex is essentially just a part of Brandon’s routine, and that he now has no pleasure for it. In a sense, sex for him may as well be self-abuse.

With that being said, director Steve McQueen (not the movie star of the ’60s and ’70s) masterfully portrays sex in a way that makes it flat-out ugly and almost painful. He films such scenes with close-ups and extreme close-ups (often of Brandon’s grimacing face), and the result resembles not two humans having sex, but rather two large slabs of meat going at each other. In fact, the only time when McQueen films Brandon’s sexual encounters from a comfortable distance is when the tortured character feels some degree of empathy for his partner.

The film isn’t going to attract many moviegoers, most likely due to its NC-17 rating for its graphic sex scenes. Some may even dismiss it as artsy pornography, but it’s not. If anything, the film uses sex to show the need for affection and the importance of caring for another human being. This is what is at the core of the film’s heart, and what Brandon is missing in his.

To call “Shame” the best film of 2011 or even a masterpiece is an understatement; it is an example of bold filmmaking at its best. It provides not a comfortable viewing experience, but a very enlightening and human one. It may not be a film to watch twice, but it’s one that stays with you –– one that you’ll never forget.

Rating: 5 out of 5