Sex addiction. Is there even such a thing? As minute after minute of “Shame” passes by and director Steve McQueen (“Hunger”) fills in yet another empty spot on his canvas with a somber depiction of unrestrained sexual craving, there’s no denying its existence. Make no mistake — McQueen’s finished work is not an image of hypersexuality, but of the obsession, guilt and vulnerability that accompany any kind of addiction. And as such, it’s an invaluable work of art.

Shame

At the State
Fox Searchlight


“Shame” opens with a series of scenes depicting Brandon’s (Michael Fassbender, “Jane Eyre”) morning routine, wherein his first task is to see off the new, strange girl he woke up next to. Then, Brandon takes the subway to work. On one particular morning, he catches the attention of an attractive woman sitting opposite him. His brooding, sultry gaze soon renders her paralyzed; they may be in a subway, but watching them is like barging in on a profoundly intimate moment. Her hand, complete with a wedding ring, shifts uncomfortably across her thighs as she begins to realize what’s happening. As the subway door opens, she rushes out with the shocked revelation that in those few passionate moments, she may very well have cheated on her husband.

That scene may take less than two minutes to unfold, but it speaks volumes about the character. For one, it showcases Fassbender’s pure and unreserved reservoir of talent — without a single word, he manages to disclose Brandon’s biggest weakness in a scene that defines the rest of the movie. But most importantly, it epitomizes his erratic carnal cravings that manifest themselves regardless of time and place.

It’s not until Brandon’s train wreck of a sister shows up on his doorstep that we’re able to see exactly how dysfunctional his family is. Sissy (Carey Mulligan, “Drive”) is an aspiring singer who decides to crash at her brother’s house while she finds a stable job. Stability, however, is not her virtue. Plagued by a history of abusive relationships, Sissy testifies to everything that’s wrong with Brandon. His lack of support for Sissy after an undefined family trauma led her to become sporadic and helpless. Her appearance revives his guilt, which in turn fuels his anger, which he then unleashes on her, making their relationship a painful, inescapable whirlpool.

Sissy’s arrival also brings to the forefront Brandon’s frustration with who he is and what he is — ashamed. Ashamed of the way he brought Sissy up, ashamed of not being able to have an intimate relationship, ashamed of his vulnerability to addiction and his inability to pull himself out.

Usually in movies, it’s painful to see the actors walk away with all the credit. But here, no one can deny Mulligan and Fassbender their due acclaim. Their formidable performances allow McQueen to render everything in the film less significant than the characters’ raw emotions. Forget Manhattan, forget the Boom Boom Room, forget the subway, the only faces you’ll remember are those of the lead actors.

But like every other work of art, this film’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Where some may find themselves annoyed by the helplessness and incongruity of Brandon and Sissy, others may come away touched by the honesty of McQueen’s agenda. In truth, his is an agenda unspoiled by the Hollywood bug of optimism. “Shame” isn’t a tale of how to overcome addiction, it’s a tale of what renders a man so helpless that he gives up hope of something better. And while imperfect, it’s a moving, masterful cinematic achievement.

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