By Matthew D'Abate
We've seen the ravages of drugs thoroughly portrayed in several harrowing films like Neil Armfield's nightmarish Candy and Danny Boyle's drug-frenzied Trainspotting.
We've seen the agony of sexual passion in erotic thrillers such as Ang Lee's measured piece Lust, Caution and Bernardo Bertolucci's incestual sex play, The Dreamers.
But here, with British director Steve McQueen's sophomore cinematic effort, Shame, we are exposed to a subject matter that years ago would perhaps have been mocked: the porn obsessed, hooker friendly sex addict, bluntly confronted in the character of Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), a 30-something man whose raging sexual addiction is actively tearing apart the seams of his cloistered, bourgeois life.
And there's skin, all right--lots of it.
Already infamous for its brutal depiction of loveless sexuality and the slapping of an NC-17 rating by the puritanical MPAA rating commission, Shame has garnered comparisons to other films where a burgeoning set of filmmakers attempted to seduce the mainstream into an acceptance of X-rated films, demonstrated by such films as Midnight Cowboy or Last Tango In Paris. Proudly purchased for distribution by Fox Searchlight Films with a promise not to challenge the rating, Steve Gilula, the company's president, even went as far as saying in a press release: "I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner."
Brandon Sullivan is a good looking man, lean and fit, with a successful job, and a beautiful, yet sterile loft apartment in the heart of Manhattan, and the last candidate one would assume is addicted to Internet porn, habitual sessions of masturbation in the work place, and the hiring of countless, lifeless prostitutes to grind against in mechanical fervor. But there is seemingly no true pleasure in these debasing acts Brandon subjects himself to, and, like an addict whose tolerance grows by the usage, it rarely satiates, only merely sustains. Michael Fassbender, already rising in artistic fervor from critical acclaim, is a stellar monster, a satyr in an Armani suit, depicting the worst kind of gross abuse in sexual depravity.
Add to this the sudden interruption of his routine by his train-wreck pseudo-bohemian sister, innocently played by Carey Mulligan. Watching Mulligan inhabit the mentally unstable Sissy Sullivan is awkward, and slow to taste, primarily from her history of playing soft, dough eyed girls like her stint as a guileless adolescent in An Education. But she catches us halfway through the piece, and her Sissy acts as a foil to expose just how depraved and debased her brother has become.
Many films attempt this perverse honesty through cinematic melodramas, but McQueen, an arthouse progeny, fearlessly differs from these typical cheap pageantries, broaching a body desire chalk full of masochism, similarly perverse in his previous jaunt with Fassbender, his film Hunger. McQueen's images border dangerously on too scintillating in Shame, where the brutality of the flesh resembles high-brow porn, destroying any care from the audience for the obviously troubled and unexplained psychic back story of its characters. And despite long nuanced plays towards pathos from the audience, Shame fails in achieving empathy.
But the journey is the payoff: A raw, and emotive Michael Fassbender, the most awkward dinner date Woody Allen would have be envious to write, and enough New York City depictions of harlotry, both criminal in legality and in mind, blend for a cinematic Dante's Inferno of the flesh, showing us the life of a man whose lust has finally burned away any chance of a hope for true intimacy and peace.