It’s just a shame that this film wasn’t a bit better. I’m not saying I hated or even disliked Shame, but it had the potential to be a great film that handles an issue that is rarely discussed and is entirely taboo. One thing, for sure, that impressed me about Shame was the way that it made me actually feel the shame and remorse and immense self-loathing that Brandon experienced on an hourly basis. That was powerful, and I mainly attribute that to the sheer talent of one of my favorite actors, Michael Fassbender. In his second collaboration with the talented Steve McQueen, Fassbender is almost frightening. When he attacks his visiting sister in nothing but a bath towel (one that is starting to fall down, at that) and begins screaming in her face, I genuinely felt like he might have lost his mind. His rage, which clearly stems from his own unimaginably great disappointment in and repulsion of himself, is fairly constant and, while far less intense than that of his later performance as a plantation owner in McQueen’s follow-up film 12 Years A Slave, is shocking.
At the same time, Fassbender is also wise to portray Brandon thoroughly enjoying the acts that ultimately lead to his frustration. This is vital to his performance because it is clear that the film is attempting to show that sex addiction is, in fact, an addiction. It is an affliction, much like alcoholism or drug addiction. Brandon is not a freak, he’s not a pervert…he is suffering. But, as all addicts do, Brandon enjoys doing these acts while he is doing them. Just because a cocaine addict might desperately want to stop using the drug, this doesn’t mean that he will suddenly no longer enjoy cocaine when he does use it. In order to achieve the goal that this film is trying to accomplish, Fassbender needs to be as dead-on as possible. He nails it.
There are some really clever, humorous moments in the film as well that I enjoyed quite a bit. This is important is helping the movie in its attempt to be a good movie aside from the just being a movie about a particular issue that ought to be addressed. Just because a film handles a certain issue, does not automatically make it a good movie; the same way that a film stemming from a beloved novel is not immediately a masterpiece. The movie has to be good in it of itself. So, the enjoyable, clever moments in Shame help the movie from being a snore-fest about sex-addiction like Hunger was for the plight of Nationalists in Northern Ireland.
However, despite these moments, the depth brought to Fassbender’s character by McQueen, the script, and Fassbender himself, of course, is the best part of this film. As discussed, Fassbender does a fantastic job portraying Brandon’s frustration and self-loathing and enjoyment of the acts that lead to these emotions. In addition, he adds a layer of uncomfortability with legitimate emotional intimacy. As a result of his affliction, Brandon cannot have sex with someone he actually has an emotional connection with because of what he has made sex mean to himself. When with a woman he has actually dated, and clearly has feelings for, Brandon fails to perform. Only minutes later he is having sex with a prostitute against the glass wall of a hotel room… I can only imagine that this is a symptom of sex addiction, which makes it all the more important as part of the film.
Finally, while I like Carey Mulligan in the film, I don’t quite see how she fits into it, or why see needs to be in it at all. Sure, she is a source of frustration for Brandon, especially when she walks in on him masturbating. But still, the film could have as easily examined Brandon’s life and trials and tribulations without her. Furthermore, I fail to understand why she needed to attempt suicide toward the end of the film. Her presence and this act in particular seem to slightly alter the theme of the film to just portraying the life of a sad, frustrated man. Or perhaps Brandon’s sister is meant to serve the role of common struggles in humanity. Pinning depression and mental health against sex addiction might try to alleviate the taboo nature of the latter by making it seem just as common or likely to be a part of a person’s life as depression.
In the end, I pride McQueen and Fassbender for going after an issue that is rarely discussed and I look forward to the films they will make together in the future.