While we were in New York City last month, PJ and I saw Shame directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Fassbender plays Brandon, a high-functioning sex addict who’s delicately balanced world is thrown off keel when his sister, played by Mulligan, comes for an unexpected visit. Here’s the trailer:

Shame is a fascinating character study. The film’s emphasis is less on plot — Brandon drifts from one sexual liaison to the next without a whole lot of direction or purposefulness — and more on examining what’s happening to Brandon as he grapples with trying to make connections without other people. The way I saw it, sex is the only way in which he can connect, and when women — his sister and a beautiful co-worker, played by Nicole Beharie, begin to make demands on him that involve anything even remotely emotional, his world begins to fall apart.

We first saw Fassbender in Hunger, McQueen’s 2008 brilliant first feature about the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Fassbender was amazing in that role, and he’s equally great here. Both films focus on Fassbender’s body, but in very different ways. In Hunger, his character starves himself to death. Here, Brandon is obsessed with replacing the emotional with the physical. He’s a man who can’t satiate his emotional needs with sex, but he nevertheless tries and tries and tries.

Much of the advance buzz about this film focused on the nudity — we see a lot of Fassbender (and all of it is beautiful!) — but the film quickly gets over that and focuses on the character’s emotional paralysis instead. The sexiest scene in the movie is the one featured in the trailer, when Brandon cruises a woman on the subway. The other sex scenes are decreasingly sexy as Brandon’s desperation to replace emotional connection with meaningless sex becomes less and less fulfilling.

Mulligan plays Brandon’s sister, Sissy, a lounge singer who is just as messed up as Brandon, though in different ways. Her attempts at emotional connection are usually with the wrong, often married guys, and she ends up destroying whatever chance she has with the unmarried ones by suffocating them and the relationship. She’s great in this movie, especially in a lengthy scene in which she slowly sings “New York, New York” while Brandon and his boss watch. Here’s a clip:

Near the end of the movie, there is a controversial scene in which Brandon has sex with a man. Some viewers see this as a statement that he has hit rock bottom, since gay sex necessarily is “bad.” I don’t think this is what the film is saying. Rather, I thought that it was more about Brandon just needing to get off and this is one of the ways he gets off when he can’t get with a woman. It didn’t seem like this was the only time he’d done something like this. Fassbender seems to agree:

It doesn’t become about homosexuality or heterosexuality, it becomes about a fix, and where can I get my fix? People think, Wow, this is his descent into hell, and it’s not the case. I mean, we shot in a real club. That is a real scenario for many addicts that are predominantly heterosexual and they end up with a guy. You put yourself into a scenario that you wouldn’t do in a normal situation because your choice is gone. (Source)

It is unfortunate, however, that the film doesn’t depict this scene in as much detail as the heterosexual ones — that seems to suggest that McQueen doesn’t trust his audience (or maybe himself?) to be able to handle it.

Shame is a daring, beautiful, moving character study that kept me riveted. I thought it was one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and both of its stars deserve Oscar nominations.

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