“Shame” is an unflinching look at a man struggling with addiction. There are countless films out there that explore addiction to drugs and alcohol. Often, they are purveyed in a gratuitous way that initially glorifies a life of ecstasy and promiscuity that comes shattering down by the film’s end because of poor choices made and a lack of self-restraint on the part of the protagonist. This structure, in my opinion, has become too predictable and romanticized, and audiences take for granted that a life of self-indulgence and lack of responsibility, though fun, has consequences. From its opening shot, “Shame” establishes that the life its protagonist has chosen for himself is self-destructive and abusive; there are immediate repercussions, and they only get worse with time.
Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, is a good-looking, reasonably fit man living in Manhattan. He resides in the most sterile condo I have ever seen, with white walls encompassing the majority of its scenery. He works for a company we don’t know and holds a position we know nothing about. It makes no difference, least of all to him. The initial shot of the film, showing Brandon lying motionless in bed staring into space, immediately illustrates that his life is void of any sort of happiness or meaning. He could very well be a man contemplating suicide. He gets up, ignores a voicemail from his needy sister, and proceeds to masturbate in the shower. It will be one of many orgasms that day.
Brandon suffers from sex addiction, or hypersexuality. It is described as, “a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy, often in combination with the obsessive pursuit of casual or non-intimate sex.”1 Psychologists still aren’t convinced if it is even a legitimate addiction, and perhaps medically speaking it is not. But from a human perspective, it most certainly is, and it directly impacts his nature and his soul. Brandon is quiet, stoic, and irritable. When his sister comes to spend a few days in his flat, he feels that his solitude (and security) has been compromised. His habits are in danger of being exposed.
Sometimes, he and his boss, David, go out to singles bars after work. Would it come as a surprise to say that David is married? David’s flamboyancy turns women off, while Brandon’s impassive face draws them in. He doesn’t make any advances – he’s long lost enjoyment in flirtation – but seems to inevitably end up being pleasured in one way or another. Sometimes it is with others, while other times it is in private. He has a dependency on a feeling, and he cannot resist its temptations.
Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, is as passionate and energetic as Brandon is dull and lifeless. She shows up because she has nowhere to go, but Brandon couldn’t care less. She is neither welcomed by her estranged boyfriend nor her own brother. She hints at her and Brandon having had a damaging childhood, but that is never confirmed. She is a cabaret singer, and in one scene sings a familiar tune in a heart-wrenchingly somber key. Her face shows grief and pain.
Brandon knows where in town to go to get what he wants. One sequence involves a gay club, and it’s here where we can see the onset of shame. Brandon is not gay, rather he is so consumed by an insatiable urge for satisfaction that he will accept it from anyone. His face shows signs of desperation. Later on, he visits two prostitutes. There’s a close-up of Brandon that shows only his face; not his lower body or his movements, or even his partner. It is all about him and his suffering. He is engaged in activity that no longer provides him any pleasure and displays such self-abuse and self-loathing that makes it hard to watch. I was thoroughly disgusted.
Brandon is what we don’t want to be, but sadly what we can all become. “Shame” was released in 2011, and one year later, Tinder was launched, promoting casual hook-ups and greater access to sex. Hardly enough people saw “Shame” for it to make a statement in our culture, but had it been released a year later, it might have been able to. What’s shocking about the film is its focus on the act itself and the representation of how disparaging it can be made. Brandon is just the vessel through which self-defeat is channeled. He loses sight of what is important in life, like family and true intimacy. He calls his sister a burden. He claims she traps him, when really, he traps himself. The film suggests no help for him, but in its final scene, we at least see a hint at a correction in behavior.
“Shame” should serve as a reminder that we are not above the choices we make or acts we commit – we can easily fall prey to their consequences. Sometimes our choices have disastrous outcomes, not just on ourselves, but on others. “Shame” debunks the presumption often conveyed in movies and television, that orgasms are pleasures (or achievements) to be pursued. In a modern world where casual sex has reached acceptance and is no longer seen by many as morally questionable, it’s important to not lose sight of what sex is and was meant to be. Can we really detach ourselves from its true purpose, and if we try to, will it destroy us? “Shame” suggests that it does.
I am reminded of a Shakespearean sonnet that raises the same question. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was used as inspiration in writing “Shame.” Sonnet 129 starts out with the mention of lust and shame, and ends with the most profound statement:
Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action; and till action, lust Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame, Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust, Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight, Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had Past reason hated as a swallowed bait On purpose laid to make the taker mad; Mad in pursuit and in possession so, Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme; A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe; Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream. All this the world well knows; yet none knows well To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
“Shame” is one of those movies, like “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan,” that I only care to view once. Its realism makes it difficult yet necessary to watch. Its message, though well known, is not known well enough.