Since appearing in Steve McQueen’s* 2008 feature debut Hunger, Michael Fassbender has proved that he can play the action badass (as Lt. Archie Hickox in Inglourious Basterds and Magneto in X-Men: First Class) the offbeat maybe-villain (as the android in Prometheus) and the romantic lead (in the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre). More than that, he’s unquestionably the best actor in all three of those films, and many more that he’s been in. Also, an informal survey of the women at Movie Klub suggests that he’s a quite attractive man.
In short, one would think that it’s pretty good to be Michael Fassbender, in part because he ought to be able to obtain female companionship at will. Then Fassbender appeared in McQueen’s second feature, Shame, and deconstructed that notion … with dynamite.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York ad executive who is, to put it bluntly, a sex addict. Random hook-ups, paid prostitutes, physical porn in the closet and internet porn both at work and at home – Brandon can’t get enough. And since he looks like a movie star, there’s often more than enough women willing to consent. However, when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his apartment looking for a place to stay, Brandon’s lifestyle begins to take a toll on him.
Brandon and Sissy are alike and completely opposite in many ways. He’s completely repressed, unable to have a real relationship with any of his conquests; she’s completely open, unable to stop herself from going too far with the wrong man. Both of them have a deep reservoir of the titular shame that results from their behavior. That is a set of similarities and contrasts that one might expect from a movie, to the point that one might even say it’s cliché, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Brandon’s character is so tightly repressed – and Fassbender is so good at playing repressed – that without the cliché contrasts with Sissy we might not learn enough about him.
That’s the mastery of Fassbender in this movie: the audience is never sure of what Brandon’s feeling, because Brandon can’t feel anything. The extensive nudity in the film is difficult enough for an actor, as are the graphic sex scenes (Shame is one of the very few profitable films to be released with an NC-17 rating). But it’s an equally tough challenge to show that the emotional impact of all that gratification is nil. Fassbender is not playing a guy who’s cold-hearted, or misogynistic; he’s playing a guy who is broken, who would like to know what this whole “love” thing is about but is incapable. Since Fassbender himself is presumably not broken, the challenges of this role are considerable.
The most famous, or maybe infamous, scene in this film is the one where Sissy sings an interminably long version of “New York, New York” in a bar, and clearly the song is meant for Brandon. The song goes on for so long, and the camera holds on Mulligan’s face for so long, that it becomes awkward or even painful to watch. That’s the point: surely if McQueen can get that reaction out of us as an audience, Sissy should be able to get some kind of emotion out of Brandon, but Fassbender shows that there’s nothing to get. A decent movie could derive a good scene out of Sissy shouting “Can’t you feel anything?!” at her brother, but a great movie can do it without dialogue, as happens here.
As it goes for Brandon and Sissy, so it goes for Brandon and his loutish boss David, played by James Badge Dale. David is nearly a cartoon character in the way that he blusters his way from woman to woman with weak pick-up lines, even though we know from the first scene where we see him that he’s a married man. He would choose to live the way that Brandon does, if he could, but of course Brandon can’t choose. He is under a compulsion, and perhaps in a downward spiral. Like many addicts, he’s aware of his addiction but can’t find the will to stop, and that is the source of his shame. Without David around, this would not be so clear to us. He’s there to illustrate the scumminess of anyone who watches this movie and has the sarcastic thought, “man, sex addiction is really rough.”
Movies about addicts and addictions are difficult because it’s hard to capture the entire arc of the disease. Most movies either have their addicts suffer a lethal overdose — which is not likely for Brandon** — or they have to skip over a significant amount of time just to get from “hard-core user” to “one day at a time.” The reason they do this is that the first step toward conquering an addiction is simply realizing that you have a problem, and most movies seem to think that is neither a dramatic enough conflict nor a big enough victory to win. Give McQueen and Fassbender credit: they take an addiction that many people may not have thought too fearsome, emphasize the agony of living through it, and show that simply understanding the existence of a problem is the toughest battle to fight.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The London-born artist and film director Steve McQueen is in no way related to the American star of such action classics as The Getaway, Bullitt, and The Magnificent Seven.
**Although one wonders about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. It’s kind of strange that a movie about a sex addict would never explicitly address safe sex. Is Brandon hyper-protective of his sexual health so that he can keep on going, or is he so compulsive that he never bothers with protection? The film never adopts a position either way.