At its best, most of us see sex as something exciting. It brings with it passion, intensity, emotion, and expression. However, for some, that’s not the case. For some its as habitual as brushing their teeth. For them, its a vice on a par with nicotine or heroin, and enough is never “enough”. For these people, something so beautiful as physical affection becomes mechanics. In that way, it’s fitting that a film that looks as beautiful as SHAME, feels so often like pure mechanics.

SHAME is the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender). He is outwardly successful – handsome, with a good job and sweet apartment in New York City. Inwardly though, he is a sexual addict. He masturbates several times a day, has a neverending string of one-night-stands, continually employs prostitutes, and consumes an unbelievable amount of porn. Thing is, you’d never know it to look at him.

Running headlong into this life of duality is Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She is a vagabond artist making her bones as a jazz singer, and shows up unannounced on Brandon’s doorstep (more specifically, his bathtub). A sexual addict sharing his one-bedroom pad with his sister is a bad idea. Doing so with a sister as screwed up as Sissy is a terrible idea. As the movie unfolds, we sit and squirm as Brandon’s emotional isolation from the world at large is continually matched by his badly broken relationship with his sister.

Sexual addiction is a strange animal. Like any other addiction it involves something in the brain misfiring and never being able to say “when”. What makes it so strange is that of the major addictions one recognizes, it seems like its the newest (a quick internet skim show most of the information and around it and understanding of it coming in the last twenty to thirty years). It’s not just novelty that makes it strange, but more so the lack of tells. A person can seem to have it all going for themselves – job, looks, money – but meanwhile they are carrying with them an addiction that is inhibiting their life as much as alcoholism or drug abuse. Like those vices, they feel like they can’t get enough. They are searching for a physical release without the emotional necessity, and as such, they become incapable of making honest relationships.

Fassbender brings all of those complications to Brandon. He carries himself with status and sophistication – a physical specimen living in a great midtown pad and always dressed impeccably well. To look at him across the bar, he’s either the guy you want to be, the guy you want to fuck, or both. In a scene early on, he stares at a woman across the subway car from him, and stirs this slow, intense seduction that she’s clearly a party to (even though she’s married). However, what we understand about him that she doesn’t yet, is that while what he might give her might be raw and intense, it will also likely be cold and mechanical.

The counterpoint to this wordless seduction where Brandon is one witty line from sealing the deal, is the two actual dates we see him go on with his co-worker Marianne. In these scenes he seems quiet, reserved, and distant. He is without any of the confidence he wears when acting on his compulsions. In a way, he seems like Michael Fassbender on a date with an intelligent beautiful woman, but completely unaware that he looks and sounds like Michael Fassbender. Such moments of inhibition happen time and again in this film, since Brandon’s addiction is eroding his social graces…like a drug addict’s baby fat, or an alcoholic’s liver.

As if all of this doesn’t distance us enough, there’s Carey Mulligan throwing a wrench into the works. Mulligan brings the sort of doe-eyed pluck that she has perfected in two short years, but this time around she does so while wearing the shroud of another wounded soul. Sissy is obviously damaged, and to say that her relationship with Brandon is unusual is putting it mildly. Like the grindingly-slow version of “New York, New York” she sings, she is both plucky and sad all at once, leaving us unsure of how to handle her. Put these two people together, and you soon find yourself wanting to leave the room out of discomfort.

What these facets of character studies turn into, is a film that is polarizing and wickedly cold. I was drawn to that emotional disconnect since I found it elegant, though unpleasant. Director Steve McQueen has enough faith in his audience to let the film unroll slowly; completely introducing us to Brandon and his routine  before getting into the actual meat of the story. Every scene is deliberate and methodical – which is where the audience divide comes in. By making the audience spend so much time with people they don’t like doing things we don’t like, SHAME runs the risk of turning us against it. It’s a film with a full arsenal of sex scenes, and none of them entice. In that way, the movie is like a beautifully captured photograph of rotting fruit. Pretty lookin’, but off-putting.

For me, it’s that unease that makes the film a success. It certainly isn’t interested in titillating the audience with the sexual content, because the protagonist himself isn’t titillated. It’s not interested in resonating emotionally, again because the hero can’t find any emotional reonance. Instead, it embodies the very deception of a sexual addict by being outwardly beautiful, but spiritually hollow.

Brandon’s journey might play as fits-and-starts, and some of his actions might feel perplexing, but such is the nature with addiction. He’ll keep going further and further looking for a higher high, a more exciting vice, until he ultimately bottoms-out or self-destructs. Both Brandon and Sissy give us glimpses of true emotion in the final act, but by then the damage is done. It feels like we’ve caught them cheating again and they’re starting every sentence with “Baby please…”. It’s a strange mindset befitting a strange story about a strange addiction.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on SHAME.