Steve McQueen’s sophomore film, SHAME, begins with his returning star, Michael Fassbender, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling or into some far off space. He doesn’t move; he just lies there half covered by the blankets for some time. Something in his eyes suggests he can’t move just yet. He is trapped in those precious morning moments, where you become aware again of everything sleep managed to erase temporarily the night before. To get up, means having to face it all again and once you see what it is this particular man is trying to avoid, it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly why he would rather stay in bed.
Fassbender, who owes a great deal of his notoriety to McQueen after the two worked together on McQueen’s first feature, the brilliant HUNGER, plays Brandon, a New Yorker with a fancy job and an even fancier apartment. He presents perfectly in every fashion but he is hiding a secret, one so big that it could threaten everything he has in his life. Brandon is a sex addict. Some scoff at the whole idea that someone can actually be addicted to sex, as if it is some sort of made up excuse people use to get off the hook for indiscretions. The way McQueen writes the affliction though, in a script co-written by Abi Morgan, it becomes painfully obvious that sex addiction is in fact very real and likely pretty rampant. I wouldn’t call it a disease but it is certainly a learned behaviour that triggers the same pleasure and comfort responses in the brain that any addiction would. Brandon needs sex in his life and he gets more than a little antsy when he doesn’t get his fix.
SHAME does not judge nor does it invite us to judge Brandon. That said, we are not asked to sympathize either. We are simply given the opportunity to observe a man in some of his weaker, more vulnerable moments. Brandon is able to manage his needs fairly well when he has routine in his life but when his sister (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him, he is no longer able to keep his habits in the closet. Subsequently, we are witness to them all, in all their naked and sordid glory – this is a movie about sex addiction, after all; you should expect a fair amount of sex. Fassbender is brilliant and fearless as Brandon. As he processes what he’s doing and how it is affecting those around him and his self, Fassbender carries this weight in his entire body. (And I do mean, his entire body.) With SHAME, McQueen and Fassbender prove they aren’t afraid of anything and that HUNGER wasn’t a fluke. The only real shame would be if no one saw this film.