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A film about
addiction, loneliness, sadness in huge urban
directed by Steve McQueen
Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com
compelled to repeat the same behavior over and over, and all he gets from it is
self-loathing. "Shame" is the correct title.
opening shot shows Brandon awake in the morning, staring immobile into space. He
could be a man prepared to commit suicide. He gets out of bed, goes into the
shower and masturbates. It will be the first of his many orgasms, solitary and
with company, that day. He never reveals emotion. He lives like a man compelled
to follow an inevitable course.
There's a close-up in "Shame" of Michael Fassbender's face showing pain,
grief and anger. His character, Brandon, is having an orgasm. For the movie's
writer-director, Steve McQueen, that could be the film's master shot. There is
no concern about the movement of Brandon's lower body. No concern about his
partner. The close-up limits our view to his suffering. He is enduring a sexual
function that has long since stopped giving him any pleasure and is self-abuse
in the most profound way.
Brandon is a good-looking, fit
man in his early 30s, who lives alone in a sterile condo in Manhattan. He works
in a cubicle with a computer. Never mind what his company does. It makes no
difference to him. Sometimes in the evening, he and his boss, David (James Badge
Dale), go out to drink in singles bars. David is a little hyper with his pick-up
lines. Brandon just sits there, his face impassive, and has better luck. He
doesn't hope to get lucky. He doesn't think of it as luck. Sex is his cross to
I remember when the notion of sexual addiction was first being mentioned.
People treated it as a joke. It was referred to in late-night monologues. The
American Psychiatric Association in 1987 defined it as a mental disorder
involving "distress about a pattern of repeated sexual conquests … involving a
succession of people who exist only as things to be used."
The APA is no longer certain it is a disorder. Whatever it is, Brandon
suffers from it. In "Shame," however, he himself is the only thing being used.
One or two of his sexual partners may be attracted to him in the sense that some
men are attracted to nymphomaniacs. There is such a sadness involved.
"Shame" makes into a lie the universal assumption in movies that orgasms
provide a pleasure to be pursued. The film's opening shot shows Brandon awake in
the morning, staring immobile into space. He could be a man prepared to commit
suicide. He gets out of bed, goes into the shower and masturbates. It will be
the first of his many orgasms, solitary and with company, that day. He never
reveals emotion. He lives like a man compelled to follow an inevitable
He is cold to people. To prostitutes, to co-workers, to strangers. On the
subway, he trades eye contact with a woman who may be flirting. Is he flirting?
To boldly maintain eye contact is a form of flirting and an aggressive
challenge. But he doesn't smile. His is a dreadful life.
One day he comes home and someone is there. We think it may be an intruder.
It is Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his sister, although for a time, we don't know
that. He flies at her in a rage, telling her to get out. She has nowhere to go.
He doesn't care.
His shame is masked in privacy. He wants no witnesses to his hookers, his
pornography, his masturbation. Does he think he is incapable of ordinary human
contact? In time, we will suspect that Brandon and Sissy shared childhood
experiences that damaged them. McQueen wisely is not specific about the
Brandon lives in a cold, forlorn Manhattan. When he is in a group, he is
alone. The sidewalks seem unusually empty. He knows where to go in order to have
sex. In one sequence, that involves a gay bar. He isn't gay, in my opinion, but
then how is he heterosexual? He loves no one, is attracted to no one, is driven
to find occasions for orgasm — whether alone or in company hardly seems to
The introduction of Sissy allows the film some spontaneity and life. She is
as passionate and uninhibited as he is the opposite. She needs him desperately.
He fears need. They rage at each other. She works sometimes as a cabaret singer,
and in one scene, she performs a song heartbreakingly in close-up. This close-up
also shows pain and grief, but no anger.
Not many actors would have the courage it took Michael Fassbender to play
this role. He showed similar courage in McQueen's "Hunger" (2009), about the IRA
hunger striker Bobby Sands. The actor and director seem to have found a common
resolve in these films to show the thing itself, unalloyed by audience-pleasing
techniques. Brandon can't even be said to visibly suffer. He is compelled to
repeat the same behavior over and over, and all he gets from it is
self-loathing. "Shame" is the correct title.
"Shame" contains unblinking truth. I have no doubt it depicts behavior that
can be accurately called "sex addiction." The film suggests no help for Brandon,
although toward the end, he moves somewhat in the direction of being able to
care for another human being. For him, that involves being able to care for
himself, despite the truth that he feels unworthy to be known. This is a great
act of filmmaking and acting. I don't believe I would be able to see it
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