Abstract – Directed by Steve McQueen; Michael Fassbender stars as a well off executive struggling with sex addiction.
Background – I first came across this film through The Film Experience blog in the run up to the 2011 Oscar nominations. Being a bit of a Tarantino nerd, I had first become aware of Fassbender for his small roll in Inglourious Basterds. In 2011 he also starred as Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method which put him back on my radar. So when TFE posted an Oscar chart with Fassbender as a contender for Best Actor I took real notice. The concept itself is pure dramatic gold and the more I learned about the project and the director the more I wanted to see the film. It was one of my top 5 films of 2011 and is still a film that I love for its beauty and horror.
Comments – 1: The Direction is stunning. The most common complaint of this film (really all of McQueen’s films) is their heavy handed artistry. Extremely long takes, minimalist dialogue and action, showy acting; McQueen does nothing subtly. For me though, that works incredibly well. The two best examples of that here are a long take of Fassbender running through New York to avoid a rough situation in his apartment and one of Carey Mulligan singing New York New York. Both of these are as art film as you can get but since that is my cup of tea I loved every minute of it.
2: Fassbender is the key to this film. He drifts between functioning and desperate in a strained way that highlights the crisis within this character. He fucks (I don’t use that term lightly, the sex in this movie is not making love and it’s not doing it, he is fucking someone and it is graphic) no less 8 people over the course of the film and none of it is sexy. It feels empty and that is demonstrated best in Fassbender’s face as he move between passionate and relieved. As though every second he is not engaged sexually is torture and as soon as he finishes, the torture begins again.
Deep Cuts: Thematically this film touches on what meaningless sex is. The most well defined relationship in the film is between Fassbender and one of his coworkers go out to dinner and the two of them are obviously flirting. He describes that he doesn’t see the point in relationship and she asks him, “then what are we doing here.” The date seems to have gone nowhere until the next day at the office Fassbender approaches her, kisses her, and asks her home with him. In Fassbender’s eyes you can see that he almost thinks she is his way out of his addiction. But when they get to his apartment and start fooling around, he sees himself drifting from connection to addiction and stops. She leaves, and then in the next sequence we see him graphically fucking a blonde woman in the same room. He was almost intimate with someone, but regressed because that would not satisfy his addiction and would harm a person he had genuine affection for. The sex he has requires dehumanization of the partner. He requires power over the partner for it to be effective.
And that is what meaningless sex is. Where there is a complete power dynamic skew. For Fassbender in Shame it is about him having power but there is another side of sex addiction where you are completely abandoning power to feed your addiction. Now make no mistake, there is a full culture of BDSM that could be described in these terms but the difference is that in healthy BDSM relationships, all sides are still engaged in a transaction with agency. The sex addiction in Shame is the introspective side of abuse, sex addiction that serves as a release rather than a relation.
Watch with Lost in Translation and Her as a triple feature for an examination of loneliness and intimacy.
Watch with Thanks for Sharing because of sex addiction with a positive spin or Nymphomaniac for a negative spin.
Watch with Boogie Nights if you never want to see gratuitous sex on screen ever again.