In The Lost Weekend (1945) Billy Wilder portrayed alcoholism as a serious affliction rather than a delightful and humorous eccentricity. In The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) Otto Preminger debunked the cliché of the drug-fiend to reveal that narcotic addiction afflicts even ‘respectable’ members of society. In Shame video artist and Hunger director Steve McQueen does something similar with the condition loosely described as sex addiction. The protagonist Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is not a comical sex maniac, but an outwardly stable and content man whose life is inwardly dictated by the need to continually orgasm, whether by masturbation, paying for prostitutes, looking at pornography or having sex with willing strangers.
Shame opens with a flashforward/flashback sequence where the events of several hours are edited together out of sequence to convey Brandon’s ritualistic lifestyle. Not unlike Henry Mancini’s score for the opening of Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958), Harry Escott’s music for the opening of Shame distinctively features a repetitive percussion to suggest a bomb about to go off; a continuous countdown to Brandon’s next release. As he methodically walks naked around his sparse apartment, often his head is out of shot but his penis displayed, frequently close to the centre of the frame, indicating how much it has defined his life. The production design emphasises industrial design, to suggest Brandon’s mechanical and compulsive sexuality. Shots in the film contain a strong depth-of-field and appear to be shot with a long focal length to visually flatten out the scene and render it lifeless.
Sex for Brandon is functionary. Like with substance addiction, the joy of the ‘hit’ has long gone and all that’s left is the necessity to feed the addiction. Very little emotion can be seen on his face, other than an intense look of concentration. On the subway when he makes eye contact with a woman and communicates his intentions with a steady gaze, there is something absent from his eyes. She conveys a range of emotions to indicate she is flattered, aroused, nervous, apprehensive and even a bit scared, while he just maintains his look of hopeful expectation. She’s not an object of desire for him or even some kind of sexual prey; she’s simply an opportunity to feed his addiction.
The illusion of control plays a big part in Brandon’s condition. He has created an isolated life that allows him to feed his addiction, although a moment early in the film where he nervously reacts to his work computer being taken away suggests that he is not as on top of his impulses as he likes to believe he is. He also underestimates how a sex life based on artificial representations of sex through pornography, prostitution and anonymous encounters in alleyways, has hijacked his ability to form intimate relationships. In a key scene he is unable to perform with a potential romantic partner and then has no problem re-enacting with a prostitute a sexual encounter he saw a couple of days before. Both scenes take place in an open white room, dominated by a large, black widescreen television representing how sexual imagery and sexual representations have overridden real sexual connections.
Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) intrudes into the insular world he has created for himself, first through a series of answering machine messages that play while he is trying to masturbate, and then by showing up at his apartment and moving in with him. As a contrast to his ordered and almost ritualised life, Sissy is chaotic, disruptive and breaks down boundaries between Brandon’s private and professional life. She is also the only person Brandon relates to and is burdened with her own compulsive need to be loved. They are two sides of the same coin: Brandon is emotionally detached while Sissy is overly emotional, and yet both are bonded by an unexplained shared experience that has prevented them from being able to forge real relationships. In a mesmerising sequence consisting of close-ups on both their faces, Brandon watches Sissy sing at a bar. The deep love that they have for each other and the sorrow they feel for being so disconnected is expressed on their faces, revealing they are damaged people who are more than their compulsions.
Sexual politics are never the primary focus of Shame, even though issues of sexuality and representation underpin the entire film. While Brandon’s sexual appetite has been defined by the patriarchal commodification of sex, which reduces women to titillating body parts rather than whole beings, the film is careful not to suggest that Brandon is exploiting anybody or harbours aggression towards any of the women he has sex with. He is the product of a sexualised society rather than a victim or perpetrator of it. Women for Brandon are frequently the means to an end, but that doesn’t mean he hates them. Shame even includes a homosexual scene to indicate Brandon’s quest for sex is based on the need for the release rather than fulfilling any actual desires, sexual or otherwise. The double edged-sword is that this scene seems to also exist to use homosexuality to suggest Brandon’s downward spiral, which is disappointing considering how smart and sensitive the rest of the film is.
Shame is nevertheless an impressive addition to the small group of films that attempt to explore the nature of addiction. It’s a more conventional film than Hunger, but it still showcases McQueen’s remarkably ability to generate tension through long takes and to use the production design to communicate complex and difficult issues without overstatement, judgement or sensationalism. Despite the themes of detachment Shame is somehow also a beautiful film with just enough warm light glowing around the screen’s edges to keep the audience entranced.