As a brutal and intensely intimate portrait of one man’s struggle with sex addiction in modern day New York, Steve McQueen’s Shame succeeds in depicting the subject with sensitivity and unflinching honesty. Michael Fassbender gives a fantastically harrowing performance as Brandon, a successful young office worker hollowed out by his overwhelming addiction, whose routine of sexual consumption is shattered by the arrival of his emotionally erratic sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Forced to repress his compulsive urges, Brandon finds himself trapped by her presence in his home, and the strain of his addiction lines the surface of his face with agony, rather than pleasure.
Fassbender’s physical presence as an actor lends itself well to the role; the camera lingers steadily on his face as his animalistic gaze devours the women he sees on the subway, in the workplace, in bars. The achingly long static camera shots give the film the air of a documentary rather than a scripted narrative at times, emphasised by the primal and instinctual way Brandon seeks his prey. Yet as a narrative it falls short; the details of the story are vague and underdeveloped, and throughout the film there is a pervading air of hopelessness about the characters that leaves the audience cold. The film is not entirely devoid of warmth; the vivacious arrival of Sissy provides some moments of tenderness between the two siblings. But, rather than turning Brandon’s life around for the better, as might be expected if this were a more formulaic film, the chaos left in Sissy’s wake only exacerbates Brandon’s seething frustration, resulting in a tragic dénouement that leaves the two characters broken.
The relentless realism of the film, although fascinating, is often uncomfortable to watch; one of the most searingly realistic and awkward moments of the entire film comes not from one of the many sex scenes, but from a scene when Brandon dates a girl from his office. Disappointed by Brandon’s undesirable responses to her questions, the girl ends up being the focal point for the audience’s empathy, rather than Brandon, which suggests that it is the questionable likeability of the protagonist which ultimately leaves the audience feeling unfulfilled.
McQueen, as an artist, should be applauded for tackling a difficult subject via the medium of film, but, as a director, he ultimately fails to make the audience care about a character who, aside from his addiction, appears cold, lifeless and utterly devoid of hope.