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Sex Turned Senseless

by Victor Rodriguez / Columnist • June 12, 2012

Drama. A See-Saw Films production for Film4 and U.K. Film Council. Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan. Produced by Iain Canning and Emile Sherman.

Diving headfirst into the deep emptiness of a man’s thirst for pleasure, British director Steve McQueen leaves no stone unturned in his contemplation of sexual addiction. 

A quiet film in terms of its dialogue, Shame stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a New Yorker with an obsessively ordered life that is tailored to satisfy his sexual needs, which also enslave him, until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly arrives to his apartment for an indefinite stay. Following the bodily theme that McQueen introduced in 2008 with Hunger, his debut, Shame, released in 2011, deals with the far surpassed limits that a soul can impose on a man.

In an interview with film journalist Kevin Maher, McQueen specified that his direction is mainly made up of improvisation, taking shots that “feel right” as opposed to planning them. Shame is not a conventional visual spectacle, the picture is mostly devoid of any feeling, however, the framing of the character is visually directed to expose Brandon’s solitude and isolation from emotions. Emotionally unstable as Sissy is having sex with Brandon’s boss, he sits in his apartment on the far left side of the screen, in a corner, as he is sentimentally cornered, not knowing how to respond to the situation.

Almost every shot of Brandon is off-center. In the few instances where he is pursuing a woman out of interest, instead of compulsion, Brandon is visually separated. Whether if its on the subway, or in a restaurant, a linear separation between the male and female characters is established by the setting; a tube or a window frame are both respective elements of solitary composition. At placing an object that is physically between characters, the director comments on Brandon’s isolation. McQueen must have really good feelings when it comes to direction, for he displays excellence in his craft.

Fassbender does an incredible job impersonating a man who is completely materialistic and devoid of any sensation. Carey Mulligan, on the other hand, successfully opposes Fassbender’s character at having a persona that has too many feelings. Brandon gets tired of her drama as she questions how he does not find it sad that she is always the one that has to reach out. These performances bring range to the emotional journey that McQueen obliges us to take. This desynchronized relationship between the two is the effect of an untold harsh past. Shame is a film that deals with the present, it is wise that we not know about the past of the main characters. In this case, the present involves sex addiction, which is treated very much like drug dependency, and although sex is the principal theme of the movie, it is all but sexy; as a matter of fact, the viewer will, in many instances, feel repulsed by the sexual acts that Fassbender’s character gets involved in.

These aspects of repulsion are seen in one of the last scenes of the film, where Brandon is involved in a threesome with two random women in a disheveled apartment. A disturbingly long shot of Fassbender’s face is taken as he reaches orgasm with an unidentified woman, but gestures and facial expressions are difficult to distinguish. Some are indicative of pain and others of pleasure, seemingly drawing the fine line between pleasure and compulsion, where the latter takes away the first.

Being a character-driven film, Shame is an exploration of emotions, or the lack of them, comparable to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. The audience is allowed to delve into Brandon’s mind by means of his silence, getting frighteningly close to his perception. All that, of course, is held until the breakdown of the film, where the rawness of emotional conceit is truly exposed. Shame is an overwhelming experience that details the nausea of an incomplete man. The NC-17 rating was officially given due to sexual explicitness, however to place oneself into the deep angst that it requires to understand Brandon, is a task that should only be given to strict adults. It could be considered among the best films of the year, however it only applies to those who have a strong stomach and are willing to be emotionally miserable and naked for the duration of the film, for uncomfortable situations will arise with unappealing nakedness, as opposed to nudity, and a loss of general incitement.