Sexual addiction is defined by one recovery-program website as “any compulsive or impulsive sexual activity that falls into one of three categories: shameful, secretive or abusive.” Well, that’s a bit of a party-killer, isn’t it? Beyond the fact that this defines as illness so much common sexual activity (affairs, hookups, kinks, masturbation), can they really expect sex without shame? Isn’t that what we have religion for? (As director John Waters memorably put it: “I thank God I was raised Catholic, so sex will always be dirty.”)
Into the fray steps director Steve McQueen with “Shame,” which takes a cool, unsparing look at textbook sex addiction. The title hangs over the film like a question: Is the addict ashamed of his behavior, or does some deeper past shame give rise to his urges?
Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s star from his previous film, “Hunger” — in which he played IRA martyr Bobby Sands, who died on a hunger strike in prison — moves from self-abnegation to self-negation with this role. Again, it’s quite physically demanding for the actor: While “Hunger” required a shocking degree of weight loss, “Shame” has Fassbender in the nude and in compromising positions for much of the film. (In one celebrated scene he is seen shagging a hooker against the full-length glass windows of Manhattan’s Standard Hotel, which apparently attracted a crowd of onlookers during the shoot.)
Fassbender’s character, Brandon, is living the high-flying New York neo-yuppie lifestyle, complete with sterile white designer-minimalist flat, some vague job in either finance or tech, and money to burn on escort services, boutique hotel suites for flings with coworkers and posh bars where he hooks up with wannabe Carrie Bradshaws. When we first see him, he’s sprawled over postcoital sheets, and we hear the clacking heels of a woman who he can’t be bothered to show the door on her way out.
That pretty much defines his character right there: Brandon spends all his time chasing honeys, but has zero desire for any sort of emotional connection. He’s the type of guy who will announce, “I don’t depend on anybody,” as if that’s a good thing. When asked by a coworker what his longest relationship was, he replies, “Four months.” He’s much more intimate with live web-cam girls on the Internet than he is with his own sister, Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan).
Sissy shows up to crash on Brandon’s couch for a few days, and he soon comes to resent the imposition. She’s running from one bad relationship and about to embark on another — with Brandon’s horndog boss, no less — and her over-familiarity with her sibling (she climbs into his bed to snuggle) hints at some sort of dark past home life. Whatever the reason, Sissy has reacted with emotional neediness, the opposite of Brandon’s withdrawal.
Yet Sissy is a train wreck waiting to happen, and Brandon’s cool indifference to his sister’s plight — regarding her as little more than a distraction from his rigorous regimen of bonking, wanking and ogling — seems rather heartless. In many ways, “Shame” is a cousin to “American Psycho,” without the gratuitous murders: Fassbender presents the same emotionally flat, inscrutable soul behind a handsome, superficially charming exterior as did Christian Bale in the 2000 film. There’s something being said about a yuppie lifestyle in which control and consumption substitute for any real emotions. (And it’s interesting to note that Bale cited Tom Cruise’s combination of over-eager chumminess and blankness as the prime model for his performance.)
With “Shame,” McQueen has given us a film on sex addiction that depicts sex as a joyless, alienating experience. That may eventually be true for an addict — when need replaces desire, and pleasure gives way to routine — but it’s also pretty much par for the course with art cinema these days. Whether it’s “Sleeping Beauty,” “Antichrist,” “Somewhere,” “Guilty of Romance” or the forthcoming “House of Tolerance,” the films with the most titillating topics deliver the least erotic results. The connection formed during sex seems to be of less interest than the disconnect.
The argument could be made that this is all getting a bit too miserablist, but McQueen’s film is one of the better ones. With a background in video art, McQueen has a great eye for visual composition. Just watch the way he shoots a subway flirtation: The back and forth of knowing glances has never been better captured on film. His mastery of tone and pacing is exquisite, like in the way he seems to slow down the pace to real-time when Brandon goes to hear Sissy sing at a nightclub gig. There’s real talent on display here, and a move beyond the politically correct bleakness of contemporary art cinema may be in order.