Shame (2011)

They say that men think about sex every six second, and while that may be thought of as just a myth for some, it certainly rings true for the protagonist of Shame, Brandon (Michael Fassbender), who is a sex addict. While he leads a successful life — he’s charming, has a great job and a nice apartment — he can’t have a relationship for more than a few months, nor can he go more than a few hours without having to use his genitals in one way or another, regardless of where he happens to be at the time.

The title, “Shame,” is fitting, because he no longer gets pleasure from his sexual ventures. All he feels is self-loathing. He hates what he is, what he is compelled to do at almost any waking moment. He becomes increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. Nothing else seems to matter. While there is currently debate in the medical profession whether or not “sex addiction” is really a disorder, it certainly affects Brandon’s life to a great deal. Shame is an unflinching portrayal of this man, and just a few days within his life.

The catalyst for change in his life — and not necessarily for good — is the arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She needs a place to stay, and while Brandon doesn’t want her with him, he eventually gives in. Perhaps she’s not the sole reason that Brandon eventually takes the path that he does in the film — it seemed inevitable to me that he’d go down this road — but she might have just sped up the process. That works in a movie like this one. It makes you think.

I don’t want to spoil much of what happens. You won’t want to read it and I won’t want to type it. Shame is the type of film that you watch once and never again, even though it remains in your mind for a good deal of time after that first, and probably only, viewing. The film is so unhappy that it will be a struggle for many to sit through even the once. That’s good, I think. It’s a struggle for its character to get through, and so, too, should it be for an audience. It makes its point that way.

The director is Steve McQueen, who previously worked with Fassbender on the equally challenging, although not as good, Hunger, about the 1981 IRA hunger strike. It was much the same way, in that it was a film with a point, a film that was exceptionally well made, but also one that was terribly unenjoyable for an audience. I had trouble getting into it. Shame is different in that it has its moments of levity. Hunger was disparate for the entire time — even before the strike — while Shame sometimes contains joy, even if all it’s doing is masking the anger and sadness.

McQueen has grown as a filmmaker in just one release. Hunger was his theatrical debut, while Shame is his follow-up. While there isn’t a 17-minute long take in Shame like there was in his debut, we get here a filmmaker more advanced, more confident, and possibly more relaxed. Not everything has to be as perfect — although it often is — and that allows more freedom. It’s true that you don’t see many films like this, and for good reason: it takes a filmmaker of great skill and courage, along with a talented cast and a proud studio, in order to pull it off.

To that end, Shame was given the often-dreaded NC-17 rating from the MPAA, which Fox Searchlight, the studio, declared was something to be proud of, not ashamed of. While the “controversial” nature allows for that to be used in advertisement, Shame both deserves and needs that rating, or at least, the content that rating indicates. It couldn’t get by with an R. Not unless the MPAA changes what dictates the different ratings. A cut-down Shame wouldn’t be as powerful.

Still, it all comes down to the actors for this movie to work, and there’s probably nobody better for the lead than Michael Fassbender, who can carry a film that has absolutely nothing going for it — and can excel in one with talent behind the camera. Here, he bears soul and body for the audience, and the strong performance pays off by giving us a truly heartbreaking character. He’s completely dedicated to the role, and turns in another very impressive performance in a category that is quickly filling up.

Not to be outdone is Carey Mulligan, who brings more life to the picture than the more quite, isolated Fassbender. She gets several scene-stealing moments, including a full rendition — done in a close-up on her face, which becomes one of the most memorable moments of Shame — of “New York, New York.” Her character is one of more outer emotion, while Fassbender’s is more directed inwards. Both work exceptionally well, especially in contrast to one another.

Will you ever watch Shame? Will I ever watch it again? In order: probably not, and probably not. If the subject or talent involved interests you, or if you think you can handle what is ultimately a very good film, then I recommend you do so. If it doesn’t sound like it’s for you, you’re probably going to want to avoid it. It’s an unflinching, haunting film, one that I doubt I’ll ever want to see again. Consider that praise, not condemnation. Shame is a really, really good movie; it’s just also really, really hard to watch.

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