“Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. Whatever the substance you are addicted to—alcohol, food, legal or illegal drugs, or a person—you are using something or somebody to cover up your pain. That is why there is so much unhappiness, so much pain in most intimate relationships. They do not cause the pain and unhappiness. They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you.”
– Eckhart Tolle (spiritual teacher and author)
Steve McQueen’s Shame deals with a controversial subject matter: sexual addiction. The character that Michael Fassbender plays in the film, Brandon, is suffering from some kind of emotional pain. McQueen doesn’t overtly tell us what kind of pain it is, but he suggests – he shows us something much later in the film and cleverly finds a way to let us know that it could be the source of Brandon’s compulsive sexual behavior. In Ed Russo’s book Dead and Gone, the author explains that every form of addictive behavior has its roots in the desperate need of the individual to escape the overwhelming sense of shame that he or she feels and that an individual that is suppressing a great deal of toxic shame within themselves will show extreme expressions of addictive behavior to make the painful feelings go away. Brandon hasn’t learned to get rid of this shame and as a result, he leads a life of loneliness and isolation.
Brandon is an incredibly handsome office-going man in his thirties whose daily routine involves: an early morning masturbation in the shower; office work during the middle of which he takes occasional breaks to masturbate again inside the men’s room; watching pornography whenever he gets the chance both at home and office; sleeping with hookers at night. For a film that deals with sex addiction, the sex scenes are not even remotely sexy or arousing. McQueen adopts a detached and clinical approach and wants us to look at Brandon’s problem in the same manner. And he gets it right. This isn’t porn. It isn’t about sex, but about addiction. It’s the Raging Bull equivalent of sex addiction. For other people, it may be alcohol, drugs or cigarettes but for Brandon, an orgasm is his fix. His neverending urge for it is never satisfied and his mind is filled with thoughts about when, where and how to get his next fix. Considering Brandon’s good looks and his ability to seduce any woman with his powerful and penetrating (no pun intended) gaze, things come so easy for him.
Any other man would feel extremely jealous of him but only he knows his struggle well. He doesn’t achieve any emotional or spiritual fulfillment from his short sexual encounters. He has become almost cold and mechanical and so is his sex. And despite achieving an orgasm, he still feels restless and unsatisfied. How can he not? The experience is almost equivalent to watching porn for him. How can one feel emotionally satisfied if there is no love or passion involved? He doesn’t seem to enjoy it. For him, it’s just another activity to do next. An early scene in the film shows Brandon in the train seated across a young, married woman (there is a wedding ring on her finger). He utilizes his gaze to full effect as he thinks she is going to be his company for that night. Perhaps she is a woman just like himself or perhaps she is married to someone like himself and their relationship is probably going through a rough patch. So maybe she is trying to fill that void by seeking sex with random strangers. When he loses her in the crowd at the station, he is frustrated.
His life turns upside down when he sees one day that his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has managed to barge into his apartment, and his carefully constructed and sheltered existence. His routine, along with his privacy, takes a terrible blow after her arrival. They seem to share a damaged history, which seems to explain both his and her behavior. “We are not bad people, we just come from a bad place”, she tells him in one scene. We now have at least a vague idea of what’s really troubling him. But her arrival also triggers some seemingly positive changes in Brandon as he tries desperately to alter his lifestyle. When he initiates a proper date with a co-worker, we finally begin to feel hopeful for him. But when he tries to sleep with her, he is unable to perform and this embarrasses him to a great degree. He realizes that when he finally begins to develop actual feelings for somebody, he is unable to take it to the next level. Sex can’t happen for him unless he is willing to keep real emotions at bay. This is such a depressing moment for him that he immediately follows it up with what he always does best – indulging in rough and emotionless sex with a call girl.
However, this encounter and the scenes with his sister reveal that he is capable of redemption, if only he tried harder. McQueen conducts a study of this character without being judgmental. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would feel horny after watching this film. If someone does, then they might have a problem. If someone thinks that this film is just porn masquerading as “pretentious bullshit”, then they might have a problem. Well, anyone who can’t live without watching porn at least once a day has neither the right to judge Brandon nor mock this film. For addiction to porn too, is another form of sex addiction. It’s part of it. McQueen makes no attempts to sexualize some of the scenes and instead puts more emphasis on the tormented expression on Brandon’s face whenever he experiences an orgasm. Fassbender gives it all and even goes full-frontal in several scenes. It’s such a raw and intensely bold performance. I’m sure no other director has made him feel so comfortable the way McQueen does. It should be noted that the director himself has done a similar performance in a short film he directed in the past.
This film is, in my opinion, the best film to deal with this subject with such unflinching honesty and accuracy. In this film we see a continuation of the uncompromising work that both of them started with 2008’s Hunger, for which Fassbender lost around 40 pounds to play a real-life IRA member named Bobby Sands who went on a hunger strike. Fassbender continues to do great work in all his films but to me, his performance in Shame is the best of his career. I found it impossible to not shed a small tear when I saw that powerfully moving scene at the end where he finally breaks down. You feel sympathetic towards him and want him to get out of his misery once and for all. I loved the open-ended manner in which McQueen ends the film, with Brandon back on the same train and seeing the same married girl that he saw before. Is he a changed man or will he go back to his former ways? All in all, a brilliant film! Don’t watch it if you think this is one of those films that you can masturbate to. If that’s you want, then I suggest you better watch the porn stored in your laptop.