Compulsion is a terrible thing, taking over lives and robbing people of their humanity. Sexual compulsion is obviously one of the more private compulsions that one can have, and yet it can be more consuming than almost any other. Shame is about the obliteration of the self through the pursuit of sexual release.
Contrary to anything else that you may have heard, Shame is not about Michael Fassbender’s penis, although it is something that you see more than once. The plenitude of sex characteristics both primary and secondary on display belies one simple fact: Shame is one of the least sexy and erotic films about sexual acts ever made, rightfully and deliberately so.
The Australian R rating is an insult to director Steve McQueen, but there’s no fighting it: people got naked and engaged in a mechanical pantomime, and so we must protect all but the most rarefied from witnessing it.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a successful businessman whose life is dominated by sex: bar pickups, prostitutes, internet porn and masturbation in the work toilets are regularly included in his routine to the exclusion and detriment of all else. When his troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to stay, Brandon feels his freedom contract but his desire remains unassuaged.
Shame is another film with little in the way of story, but enough in the way of character and substance that this is irrelevant. Abi Morgan, doing infinitely better work here than on The Iron Lady, has invested Brandon and Sissy with a shared past that has motivated their respective situations, without ever explaining them to us. When Brandon cries, we’re not sure why, but we know that he’s feeling the same thing as his sister and choosing to express it in a different way. Brandon and Sissy may be detached, their acts – both sexual and otherwise – might seem to be largely meaningless beyond the most base of human emotions, but McQueen does not act to distance the audience from the film. Never are we kept at arm’s length, or invited not to care because the characters don’t. It’s a major triumph in a film that could easily have served only to alienate an audience unfamiliar with the strange and lonely world of Brandon Sullivan.
Carey Mulligan aside, Shame reads as a perfect companion piece to Drive. It’s nowhere near as fun as Drive, mind, but the characters have similar foundations that they direct into different energies. There’s a struggle for them to appear human that they ultimately overcome. If Drive is a fairytale, Shame is a gritty novella about people who don’t know what redemption is or where their priorities lie.
With their limited dialogue, Mulligan and Fassbender once again acquit themselves in the fashion that we have grown used to over the course of several superlative films (and several relatively poor films elevated by their performances besides). If Brandon ever seems to be an awful or controlling human being, he’s perfectly counterbalanced by his boss, played to sleazy cringe-induction by James Badge Dale, who proves that there is always someone overtly worse than you; his crowning moment is his attempt to pick a woman up in a bar by claiming to have written Blondie’s “Rapture”. Otherwise, McQueen has total control over the show, creating multiple memorable sequences utilising music and subway carriages both, culminating in the film’s surprising, inevitable and effective climax.
If there’s one thing that’s very difficult to police, it’s eroticism. One can’t tell another person that they don’t find something erotic but it is possible to read erotic intent, or lack thereof, on the part of a director. While some might derive some charge from the nudity on screen, it always feels more clinical than sexual. The participants aren’t degraded; they’re merely acting out a part from which they derive only a parody of pleasure. Sex fails Brandon when dialogue is attendant, through a combination of either emotional blockage or excessive, self-destructive bravado. The only sexual transaction that he can tolerate is fiscal or physical, not social or psychological. It’s possibly the worst way that a man can express himself, but it’s the only thing that comes close to working for Brandon.
Breasts or penises alone are not inherently “sexy”; sexiness is read into a situation by the projection of both subject and perceiver. Much will be made – and has been – of the nudity, of Fassbender’s endowment, but that’s not what Shame is about. This is a movie about desperately unhappy people trying to lose their unhappiness, and themselves, through mindless repetition and emotional unavailability. It’s something close to beautiful, but it’s definitely not to all tastes. If you’re able to allow yourself to attempt an understanding of the Sullivans’ mindsets, then Shame might well do something for you.