Asked to show my concern for a victim of sex addiction, I am minded to reply with the guy who wrote: “Would it be heartless to suggest that, in a crisis-riddled world, this is one problem we should not spend too much time worrying about?” Steve McQueen’s Shame — which, as someone once said of the London Sunday Times‘s “Culture” section, seems to have been named for the thing they left out — is a movie about sex addiction, but its hero, played by Michael Fassbender, is not really an effective poster-boy for the disease, if disease it be. That’s because the movie is directed at cinéastes and not those contemplating their year-end charitable giving. You can also tell this by the omission by the authors — Mr. McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with Abi Morgan — of a plot. Instead, they have focused with a laser-like intensity on the visual correlates of its hero’s highly interesting affliction.
Thus the film begins with a long take in which Brandon, Mr. Fassbender’s character, very slowly rouses himself from what is apparently meant to be a state of post-coital lassitude in a pose which recalls that of a less discreet Mars in Botticelli’s “Mars and Venus” — except that here there is no classical context, no Martian back-story in armorial form, no youthful satyrs playing with the armor — and, above all, no Venus. Instead, our immediately subsequent but unaccustomed glimpses of Brandon in a state of nakedness doing things that are normally done alone, including a shot from behind of his urinating and another (picked up from American Beauty) through the shower’s glass door of his masturbating, are meant to stress the state of isolation his condition may be supposed to entail. This is further reinforced by a female voice leaving a desperate message on his answering machine which he ignores as he goes about his morning routine.
Throughout the rest of the film, Brandon experiences his ups and downs along with sexual encounters of various kinds and we are left in no doubt that, whatever we may have thought beforehand, sex addiction is definitely not a barrel of laughs. Particularly sad is the fact that his obsession is so emotionally barren and so isolating that he eschews intimacy even with his vulnerable and psychologically fragile sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who is the voice on the answering machine and who invites herself to come and stay with him in his Manhattan bachelor pad. But what happens as a result either of Brandon’s sex addiction or of his attempts to shut his sister out, emotionally if not physically, the film does not (quite) tell us, any more than it tells us anything about the origins either of Brandon’s mania or of Sissy’s delicacy.
One or two things of consequence happen, perhaps, but the consequences are omitted as Mr. McQueen’s camera draws back and leaves its broken-off story to be completed — or not, as the case may be — by the viewer. Brandon’s fitful attempts to break out of his self-imposed prison into narrative, which is to say into “relationships,” whether with his sister or with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) whom he takes on an awkward date (in the non-“sex-worker” sense) are his way of trying to break his addiction’s hold on him at the same time they are the film’s way of apparently attempting to break into its own narrative. His inability to make any genuinely human contact therefore becomes the counterpart of the film’s inability or unwillingness to give us the ending, and with it the meaning, that we want.
The result is rather similar to what Mr. McQueen attempted in his previous film, Hunger, about the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, which also starred Mr. Fassbender. “Hunger” and “Shame” are both human feelings wrenched from the narrative context in which we normally experience them. In other words, there has to be some kind of story to explain these feelings, at least in their non-trivial manifestations. We naturally want to know why these people are subjecting themselves to the sorts of sufferings they do, but Mr. McQueen supplies only superficial explanations or no explanations at all, lest these should interfere with the purity of the emotional experience he wants to show us. In doing this, he all but strips his characters of their humanity, making them vessels of animal feeling in a way that is a kind of explanation of its own. These are people in flight from their humanity. If there were a reason for that flight, they would presumably have failed at it.
There is something admirable about this purity, just as there is something (presumably) still pleasurable about the sex acts Brandon engages in with himself, with multiple women, and with at least one man in the course of the film, though in neither case are these things gratifying to a viewer with more than an aesthetic interest in the movie. The best bit of the film is when Miss Mulligan, revealing a hitherto undiscovered talent, sings Kander and Ebb’s pop anthem “New York, New York” from the Scorsese film as a meditative, piano-accompanied ballad, and we see a single tear running down Brandon’s cheek. Mr. McQueen gives us the whole song, too, and not just the payoff, rather as earlier he had eschewed the usual cinematic coyness (which he mostly sticks to in the sex scenes) while depicting her in the shower. It’s a brave and even slightly shocking defiance of cinematic convention and audience expectation, but it is a defiance, like the truncated narrative, only for its own sake. You have to like movies too much to like this movie or even, I would say, to consider it worth seeing.