Shame is a film about addiction. It is not a film about overcoming addiction, or about the consequences of addiction: it is simply about a state of being. Even its characters are just lenses through which the nature of addiction is explored. The best way to think of it is something like a fictionalised documentary. But as such films go, Shame is near flawless.
The lenses in question are named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Cissy (Carey Mulligan). They are brother and sister and both addicts, not to drugs but to sex. Brandon is the more stable of the two. He has built something resembling a normal life with apartment and job, and manages to hold on to these despite his constant and compulsive masturbation, solicitation of prostitutes, watching of pornography, and all around sexual goings on. Cissy’s life by comparison is a chaotic mess. When she comes to stay, the chaos she brings with her threatens to destabilise Brandon’s entire existence.
Because the film is an exploration of addiction, Brandon, its lead, is ruled by it. He has a public face to wear, which is charming, in a somewhat predatory fashion, but this is just a shell. Inside he is nothing but compulsion. In conversation, whenever a normal person might reveal some facet of their personality, Brandon only reveals an insatiable desire for sex. And this is a cold desire. For Brandon, sex is purely functional and utterly devoid of emotion.
Cissy is exactly Brandon’s opposite. Though still ruled by addiction, for her, emotion is inescapable. Where Brandon craves release, Cissy craves intimacy, a craving that often leaves her used and broken. The film is at its most harrowing when the two addictions come into conflict. Again and again we see Cissy seek intimacy from a brother who incapable of it and for whom all the physical signifiers of intimacy mean something very different.
The complexity of these characters is testament to the skill of writers Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen (who also directs the film), and a sizeable challenge for Mulligan and Fassbender. Good thing it’s a challenge they rise to meet. With the character of Magneto under his belt, being coolly reserved is child’s play for Fassbender. However when revealing Brandon’s anguish at how trapped he is by his addiction, he does not skimp on emotion. Hell in one scene, he manages to convey ecstasy and misery simultaneously. Meanwhile Mulligan is pure fragility. Her best scene, where she delivers a slow, quavering rendition of New York, New York, beautifully conveys the emptiness at the heart of her character.
Speaking of beauty, Harry Escott’s score is note-perfect, his music the source of Shame’s compellingly dark tone. The film is visually powerful as well, with McQueen’s lingering camera giving scenes an almost gravitational attraction. Shame’s immersion is the kind that sneaks up on you, but is all the more powerful for being surreptitious.
All this makes Shame an excellent exploration of addiction. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t make for is good drama. But then, that’s not the point. McQueen and Morgan are looking to convey reality through fiction. The problem with reality though, is that it’s somewhat devoid of endings and simple causes, and so is Shame. We leave Brandon as trapped as we first found him, and we never learn why he and Cissy are addicts. In part, this makes the exploration of their condition more effective. By not making addiction subject to easy explanations or quick fixes, the issue is treated with the seriousness it deserves. Unfortunately, this also makes for a film that leaves the viewer without the comfort of resolutions. It’s not a problem exactly, but an issue that may obstruct enjoyment.
Regardless, Shame remains a deeply compelling film. It is dark and hopeless, but not oppressively so and even has a few blackly comic moments here and there. The acting is good, the score is great, and, if that fails to interest, the film earns its 18 rating with a vast amount of nudity. Hell, Fassbender’s arse is almost a character in its own right. And amongst all this, Shame is a film that treats sexual addiction with the respect the condition deserves. If nothing else it should be lauded for that.
Rated: 18 (UK)
Release Date: 13th January 2012 (UK)
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast:Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale