Unsexy and the City
Brandon Sullivan is living the dream! Great job in New York City, fantastic apartment in Manhattan, a different beautiful woman in his bed every night. He must be the envy of every hotblooded man, mustn’t he?
This is that movie about sex addiction you’ve heard so much about. This is the movie in which Michael Fassbender (Haywire, X-Men: First Class) goes full-frontal — oh, come on, you’ve heard about that, too. These things are not shocking. What is shocking about Shame is the male vulnerability, the male weakness, the abject male misery we see onscreen. Movies simply don’t do this. Movies protect the male ego, even to the point of — at least in the United States, thanks to the MPAA’s retrograde puritanism — decreeing that male nudity is much more scandalous and is to be treated much more seriously than female nudity, which may be treated casually. (A penis? Onscreen? Why, men might feel inadequate! Unless said penis is somehow comically small. That’s okay! Male egos remain intact!) (Warning: Fassbender’s nudity may bruise some male egos.) Male dignity is something that the status quo — in Hollywood and in the larger culture — works very hard to maintain in the same way that it does not do for women.
And Steve McQueen (Hunger, also with Fassbender) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (Tsunami: The Aftermath) — a lady Abi, it’s probably worth noting; she knows what it’s like to not have one’s dignity valued — strip all that away to lay out the bare, spare truth: what pop culture typically feeds us as “ordinary” male sexuality is probably worthy of a psychiatric diagnosis. Men think about sex nonstop! Men will fuck anything with a pulse! This is the reality of Brandon’s life… and he is wretchedly unhappy with it. The startling opening image of the film is Brandon lying in bed, staring unblinkingly at the ceiling, into the camera. He doesn’t move. He might be dead. He is dead, we come to see, on the inside. He is a slave to his physicality, in no different a way than if he was addicted to, say, picking his nose. Yeah, sure, that sounds gross… Shame makes a life of nonstop orgasm look gross. Look appalling. Brandon doesn’t enjoy sex — when he tries to make love to a lovely coworker (Nicole Beharie: American Violet) with whom he’s just had an actual grownup date, he can’t get an erection; he’s dumbfounded by how gentle and tender she is. Sex, for Brandon, is quick, rough, nasty, and anonymous. It’s an act, in the broadest sense of the word — a physical behavior but also a sort of performance — that he’s compelled to engage in over and over again. With strangers. To Internet porn. By himself in the restroom at work.
(Note that I am not suggesting that all men are sex addicts. I’m saying that our culture colludes to create an image of men as slaves to sex, and that that’s not true… because if it were, all men would be like Brandon. And they’re not.)
“Brandon, where are you?” his sister Sissy sing-songs on his answering machine. It’s a good question. He’s lost. He lives in constant terror of his secret being discovered. His elegant exterior hides his torment, but he gets that deer-in-the-headlights look so often: “I find you disgusting,” barks his boss (James Badge Dale: The Conspirator, The Departed) in a meeting, and Brandon is rocked with startlement… but it’s just the asshole boss’s idea of a pep talk to his team. (We never learn precisely what sort of work Brandon does. It doesn’t matter — it’s not important to even his own central idea of who he is.)
And then Sissy (Carey Mulligan: Drive, Never Let Me Go) shows up at his door. She’s a mess of her own kind — she has boundary issues, for one thing — and she needs a place to stay. She shatters his terrible stasis. Is it merely her presence in his space, physical and mental, that interrupts his regular obeisance to his compulsion? Or is it that she’s a woman, so close, whom he’s not supposed to want, but finds himself thinking of sexually anyway? Shame is never clear on this. It doesn’t need to be.
Lest I haven’t been clear, this is not a porno. The sex isn’t any more graphic than what we see in lots of other movies. If what’s actually depicted onscreen is worthy of an NC-17 rating in the U.S., then many many more films should be rating the same. (In the U.K., the equivalent rating of 18 is used far more often than the NC-17 is, so the point would seem to be moot on this side of the Atlantic.) I’m not suggesting this film is for children — of course it isn’t. But it would seem that the only “problem” with this movie, when compared to much of Hollywood’s output — and hence why it garnered the NC-17 rating — is that it actually deals with the ramifications of what it depicts. The veneer of our cultural fantasies has been ripped away. You have been warned.
Did I say that movies protect male dignity? Well, there is the subgenre of the humiliation comedy, in which we’re meant to laugh at male misery precisely because it is laid so bare: it’s (supposedly) funny when men are weak and beat-up-upon. But that’s just a way of protecting male egos, too: a dude is invited to laugh at the man who is treated like he’s a woman, weak and exposed. Brandon’s nakedness here — and I don’t mean his physical nakedness, either — is shocking partly because McQueen is so very very compassionate about it. Shame is as economical a film as you will see, with not one wasted moment in it: yet McQueen takes the time to show us Brandon holding a door for a woman pushing a baby stroller. Brandon is a nice person. He is a good person. He is not a monster. He’s just really, really fucked up. “We’re not bad people,” Sissy comforts him at one point. “We just come from a bad place.” We don’t learn what that bad place is, but really: Shame, for all its disquieting specificity about Brandon’s particular problem, is about all of us, and the secrets we keep, and the secrets we’re terrified others will learn about us.