When it comes to sex, my mindset is more European than it is American. To put it bluntly, I have a laissez-faire perspective on sex and its place in society. From porn to explicit nudity in studio films, I feel we shouldn’t be sheltered from sex, especially considering it’s part of our inherent nature. Because of my view on this taboo subject, I often get annoyed when films become labeled as inappropriate or pushed to the background simply because they prominently feature sex and nudity. In the realm of the MPAA, decapitation and blood lust are more acceptable than two people (or even forty if we’re talking Eyes Wide Shut) having intercourse. Such a position seems ridiculous, but it becomes asinine when a film like Steve McQueen’s Shame is hit with the dreaded NC-17 rating, an appropriation that seemingly lacks context. Without a doubt, there is a high degree of sexual debauchery found in McQueen’s examination of sex addiction, but none of the sex present is titillating. As a matter of fact, much of the sex lacks any form of eroticism. The film’s taboo distinction leaves me disheartened because it devalues and blackballs a performance from Michael Fassbender that is beyond ferocious.
Now, I’m willing to secede that Shame is a film that would fit comfortably in a hard R rating. The subject at hand is complex and unflinching in its vision and language, but it isn’t gratuitous by any stretch of the imagination. We know this right away when McQueen inserts us into the life of Brandon (Fassbender), a successful businessman that’s physically striking and undeniably charming. Brandon certainly looks like he’s put together, perhaps the man of most women’s dreams, but he’s crumbling internally. Brandon, for reasons unknown, is addicted to sex. Where sex is a moment of procreation and romantic fun for most adjusted people, it’s a daily requirement for Brandon’s survival. In some respects it’s like a hunger that rumbles in the pit of his stomach. With each passing moment that he avoids sustenance, the tremor within becomes too rapturous to ignore. Such a hunger can only be satiated through tactics that threaten Brandon’s work and personal life (i.e. masturbating in a bathroom stall during work). Considering Brandon’s mask of assurance and normalcy has to be perfect on a daily basis, it should come as no surprise that he has a system in place. Everything is going relatively smooth for Brandon until his delicate system is interrupted by a visit from his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a woman who has a past that is just as vague and damaged as Brandon’s.
Amidst Brandon’s increasing dependency on sex and the conflicting relationship he has with his sister, Shame viscerally forces us to walk with Brandon into the depths of depravity. And what a seedy, uncomfortable descent it is. The hunger for sexual gratification haunts Brandon at every turn. He glances at women as if they were a full course meal waiting to be devoured. And in some of the sex scenes, he dismantles his sexual partner like a lion rips apart a gazelle. Romance ceases to exist. Outside the significant loss that creeps across Fassbender’s face throughout the film, his performance reaches unbelievable heights when he’s naked and behind closed doors. Totally committed to what McQueen’s screenplay asks of him, Fassbender’s sexual interactions reek of desperation, resentment and a weird relief. The latter is in large part due to the empathy Fassbender draws from us. Fassbender ropes us so far into his character that after each session, we collectively exhale as if we’ve been holding our breath in for hours. The emotional exhaustion belongs to us just as much as it does to Brandon. In conjunction with Fassbender’s mesmerizing performance, a portrayal that is as unhinged as Rooney Mara’s work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, writer/director Steve McQueen vividly shows us the destructive nature of addiction.
Whether it’s the potential for catastrophe at work or Brandon trying to maintain a fragile relationship with Sissy, McQueen gives us an honest; no holds barred look at the impact addiction can have on a human. This stands to reason, despite the high level of breasts and sex, that Shame is a film that is more educational than it is disruptive to a social homeostasis. Once again, the NC-17 rating feels like overkill. If Shame has any issues, it would be its lack of emphasis on Brandon’s past and an ambiguous sibling relationship. Mind you, I appreciate the fact that McQueen’s film focuses on the effects of Brandon’s affliction, almost making it more of an absolute, but it’d be far more beneficial if we are given a chance to understand how this predicament became Brandon’s to bear. Admittedly, a little background would also make Brandon’s relationship with his sister more accessible outside of insinuation. But, as it stands, Shame is a bold film that registers on a primal level. Is it an enjoyable film that one would want to see over and over again? No. Rather it’s insight into a troubled life that society would otherwise dismiss as vulgar. As we have come to learn, some people just can’t help themselves.