Taking the joy out of sex in ‘Shame’

For all its sexual audacity, ‘Shame’ is strangely puritanical — a carnal guilt trip


Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in 'Shame'

By the end of the Toronto International Film Festival, Shame was no longer just a movie. It was The Most Talked About Movie At TIFF. Its star, Michael Fassbender, had been named best actor at the Venice Film Festival. That buzz, and the film’s stark portrayal of sex addiction, put it on the top of everyone’s must-see list. Not to mention that it’s the second feature from British art-star-turned-auteur Steve McQueen, who made such an incendiary debut in 2008 with Hunger (also starring Fassbender, in a stunt-like tour de force as hunger-striking IRA martyr Bobby Sands).

When I first saw Shame, at TIFF, I found much about it amazing and admirable, but I was left cold. Despite all the carnal eye candy and sleek Manhattan visuals, the film’s descent into a hell of loveless sex seemed desperately bleak. What’s worse, I was disappointed by my disappointment, as if it were a personal failing akin to that of the film’s protagonist. For fans of Shame, that would just be proof that the film was doing its job. Art, after all, is meant to disturb. “You say Fassbender’s character is shallow and soulless? Well, of course he is! Welcome to the real world!”  Yet something still felt not right with the film that I couldn’t put my finger on. When I came out of it, my first thought was that I wouldn’t have to see it again, or want to. But as time went on I felt so conflicted about it that eventually, I did. Now I finally have an opinion or two.

The second time around, you tend to notice the filmmaking more, and it was even more eloquent than I remembered. McQueen likes to shoot in masterful uncut takes, so that the camera and the performance become one. Each scene is a like a living organism. That’s especially effective in the sex scenes, which seem all the more real and graphic because you know they’re not being composed in the cutting room.  The film’s all-enveloping world is equally liquid—this silky Manhattan-under-glass where Brandon (Fassbender) works an anonymous office job by day and swims shark-like into endless nights where the women are jumping and the cocktails are high. The city itself is like a vast lens, literally when Brandon has grinding sex against the floor-to-ceiling window of a hotel tower. The grimy underground groin that connects his world is the subway. In the opening sequence, Brandon pins a pretty stranger on the train with a long, hot, predatory stare, which only intensifies at the sight of her wedding ring.

There are some rich scenes. When Brandon goes through the motions of a dinner date with an office colleague, their conversation—constantly interrupted by an over-attentive waiter—unfolds as a delicious tease. At this point we know that our sex superhero is addicted to porn and hookers and strangers (it’s his secret identity), so anything approaching intimacy is a turnoff. Yet we’re hoping this lovely, engaging woman from work might bring him around; instead he takes giddy pleasure in confessing his lack of interest in anything approaching a real relationship.

Also, the fierce standoffs between Brandon and his wayward sister (Carey Mulligan), who throws herself at his feet, are riveting. This is the only relationship that seems to matter in his life, no matter how severly he neglects it. But the murky innuendos of incest lead nowhere, and its eventual fate seems like a cheap trick of melodrama.

Brandon’s escalating anguish might be more compelling if we cared about him—if he elicited an ounce of empathy. But he seems utterly hollow. Yes, I know that’s the whole idea. But unlike American Psycho or Cronenberg’s Crash—two films that navigate the same shiny turf—Shame doesn’t have much of a satirical streak. It’s a tragedy. The glancing wit evaporates completely by the last half, and we find ourselves strapped into a grim guilt trip. Which may be why, from anecdotal evidence, I’ve noticed that men seem more bummed out by the movie than women. Even though Brandon is a cold, unlikable jerk, you don’t have to be a sex addict to see a glimmer of recognition in his oblivion. Face it, every guy is, on some level, a shallow, sex-obsessed stimulus junkie who treats commitment as homework.

There’s no denying the conviction of Fassbender’s visceral performance, which is courageous and precise. But just as his character is enslaved to empty sex, the actor’s brute stoicism seems harnessed to his director’s hermetic vision of lust and self-loathing. Shame, in fact, could just as easily be called Guilt. Considering it’s so notorious for sexual audacity (rated NC-17 in the U.S.) it’s an oddly puritanical morality tale—the sad story of a man who pays in the worst way for his carnal urges. The lower he sinks, the more masochistic he becomes, until he’s getting beaten up in a bar and putting his revulsion to the test in a grotty bathhouse—as if gay sex were the last circle of hell. In the end, his pleasure is cruelly punished.

Now, if all this seems to be adding up to a wholly negative review, it’s time to redress the balance. Shame deserves some serious credit for plunging into uncharted waters of male sexuality and provoking discussion. After all, I did see it twice, and that wasn’t because I needed to revisit Fassbender’s butt. Shame may not be the ideal date movie. But it still demands to be talked about.

To read my article in Maclean’s about Fassbender, with interview comments from David Cronenberg, go to: The many faces of Michael Fassbender.

Follow Brian D. Johnson on Twitter: @briandjohnson



Taking the joy out of sex in ‘Shame’

  1. There is talk among the movie critics that Fassbender may get an Oscar for the greatest amount of butt showing!

  2. I just keep hearing more and more about Michael Fassbender… And I have apparently seen movies with him in them too. This movie definitely sounds disturbing… The way you describe almost makes it sound like The Road. A great movie, but kind of painful to watch due to it’s cold, dark realism.

    • Nice idea, still I do want to enjoy this movie for  Michael Fassbender.

  3. “Face it, every guy is, on some level, a shallow, sex-obsessed stimulus junkie who treats commitment as homework.” Your statement comes from YOU, not every guy out there. 

    You want the woman to save the guy, but the film simply shows the truth—no woman, no single person, can ever control the addiction of another. You want the happy ending. 

    The criticism you could have leveled against the film, would have been that Fassbender’s character unfortunately never gets help and stops, just like most men with this most shameful addiction (sex) don’t get help—discovering the painful but life-saving process of recovery, working with a certified sex addiction therapist, going to a treatment center focusing on sex addiction etc. All the ingredients needed to stop this monster of a condition.

    The puritanism you project into the movie isn’t in the movie, it’s in the broader culture. The protagnist doesn’t get the ‘happy ending’ you seem to want in part because of our puritanical culture that doesn’t know how to broach the subject of sex addiction and provide a solution. A culture which until now has never seen a movie like this before. Of course it’s uncomfortable, it’s the truth.

    If its a TRUE addiction, a man will stay in it until he is changed, through recovery, or keep doing and/or thinking about doing whatever it is, until death. One or the other. This movie didn’t show recovery. It’s not comfortable, but most guys don’t get the help that is needed. 

    Of course you weren’t comfortable! Assuming you aren’t a sociopath and naturally feel discomfort watching an addict hit bottom—from observing an active addict not in recovery going downhill, as they do, until it’s ‘Jails, Institutions or Death’, as goes part of the reading before every meeting of one of the larger 12 step programs.The unknown fact with sex addiction is that there are real patterns of straight men with intimacy disorders starting with porn, flings, and cheating, then ending up in bathhouses and parks just because its free, cheap, and shaming. But there’s no way to know this unless you’ve known people who have been there. Why would they tell YOU? How would the public know about this pattern? Oh yeah- a movie that tells the TRUTH! Well, we got one now. And it ain’t fun: but either is sex addiction, or addiction of ANY sort. We simply live in a culture that doesn’t talk about addiction’s prevalence, and how to recover. And we live in a puritanical culture that doesn’t know how to talk about sex. And as a result, most men like the main character doesnt know what to do when there’s a problem-a big problem-with their drug of choice, especially when it happens to be sexual acting out and obsession.Naturally you feel fear when watching the movie, and in your case, perhaps, guilt and shame for your own ‘stimulus junkieness’. But don’t fret—unless you have the addiction yourself there’s nothing to worry about!The entire point of the movie is not that there is no joy in sex, but that there is no joy in sex addiction, and no hope for the sex addict [in this case—untreated, not in recovery, as with all the other addictions.]  -Your negative review’s premise is that the film lacks warm fuzzy feelings, because you believe it says ‘there is no joy in sex’. You’ve simply confused the trauma of an addict—[reality]—with your own relationship to sex.

  4. “Face it, every guy is, on some level, a shallow, sex-obsessed stimulus junkie who treats commitment as homework.” 
    If this were so… explain the love, commitment, and respect I have for my wife of 53 years.  So much so, I can’t always put it into words.One of my closest male friends has been diagnosed as such and I can tell you the biggest battle he has is being committed without “acting out”. He has been undergoing treatment / one-on-one counselling, and group counselling (male and female) for years. He would vehemently disagree with your statement. After “acting out”, he often feels (as do others in the group) sick to his stomach and very ashamed.This  generalised statement left me cold and disappointed for I thought that we were beyond such puerile and stereotypical pronouncements. I thought you, as a subjective critic,  would know better.Of course, the statement could be autobiographical, could it not?Dave

  5. Thanks for the review. The movie wouldn’t interest me at all–seen too many types, men and women, like this (specially in these days of internet dating) for Fassbender to provoke more than a yawn. Frankly, it all sounds a bit dated.

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