LOS ANGELES – “Shame” is a dispassionate treatment of a disturbing topic, and therein lies its power. Sexually graphic enough to earn its NC-17 rating yet made with a restraint that’s both unflinching and unnerving, this is a psychologically claustrophobic film that strips its characters bare literally and figuratively, leaving them, and us, nowhere to hide.
Directed by Steve McQueen from a script he co-wrote with Abi Morgan, this story of the obsessive behavior of a man addicted to sexual activity demands an actor willing to completely reveal himself emotionally as well as physically. In Michael Fassbender, “Shame” has gotten exactly that.
Seen last year in a range of films including “A Dangerous Method,” “Jane Eyre” and “X-Men: First Class,” Fassbender’s breakthrough performance was as Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in British filmmaker McQueen’s wrenching 2008 “Hunger,” and he brings the same commanding magnetism and intensity to the director’s latest work.
The actor plays Brandon, a New Yorker introduced lying so exhausted in his rumpled, unmade bed that he could almost be dead. Laconic and self-contained, Brandon is not given to introspection or even conversation, but he doesn’t need to talk for viewers to figure out there’s only one thing on his mind at all times: the compulsive pursuit of sex.
In constant, uncontrollable need of sexual satisfaction, Brandon picks up women, pays for prostitutes, masturbates in the shower at home and in the bathroom at work. He has sex in apartments, in hotel rooms, outdoors against a wall. Again and again and again.
Recorded in explicit but never pornographic detail, this is some of the most joyless sex ever put on screen, a compulsion to climax in which emotional connection plays no part. It’s the fixation of a tortured individual aghast at the self-destructiveness of his addiction but unable to change his actions or escape the shame they cause.
If Brandon is teetering on the edge of an abyss when the film begins, things get more complicated for him when his sister Sissy, a singer with a club date in New York, comes for a visit and weasels her way into an open-ended stay at his apartment.
Unflinchingly played by the gifted Carey Mulligan (who also sings a heartbreaking rendition of Kander and Ebb’s classic “Theme From New York, New York”), Sissy turns out to be as troubled as her brother but in a mirror-image way.
As over-emotional and out of control as Brandon is withholding, the bleached and blowzy Sissy, always on the verge of hysterics, looks as beaten-up by life as an inflatable Joe Palooka punching bag.
A mess where relationships are concerned, Sissy is neediness personified. In her insistence on emotional connection, she presses all of Brandon’s buttons without half trying. Her presence in his life makes him feel that the walls are truly closing in, making it clear that some kind of breaking point is unavoidable.
Working with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, director McQueen (winner of Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize for his art videos) favors a spare, unadorned, almost Bressonian visual style that wants us to focus on what is happening on screen, not the way it is shot.
Similarly, “Shame’s” script pares away anything resembling a back story or material that would offer an explanation, facile or otherwise, for Brandon’s actions. Even the family background that Brandon and Sissy share, which presumably would clarify a great deal, is rigorously excluded from our view.
Also left out, to less satisfying effect, is any specificity about the nature of Brandon’s work. His office computer is seized because of viruses caused by watching pornography, but it’s unclear both how he is able to watch so much without a private space and how he can survive for days without an office machine. Also something of a contrivance is the invariably attractive nature of Brandon’s partners. Addicts are usually not this fortunate.
But these are minor quibbles that do not detract from how adroitly McQueen has been able to construct his film out of telling vignettes.
The film’s supporting cast, especially Nicole Beharie as a co-worker Brandon attempts to strike up a relationship with, James Badge Dale as his boss and Lucy Walters as a wonderfully enigmatic woman glimpsed on a subway, have all risen to the occasion, but it is Mulligan and most especially Fassbender that give the film its power.
The desperation, hostility and despair he conveys through the act of sex make “Shame” a film that is difficult to watch but even harder to turn away from.