Despite the onset of adulthood, I’m still one of those people who squirms, then chortles or sucks through his teeth whenever a TV continuity announcer says that the following programme “contains sexual scenes from the start”. I do wish Steve McQueen’s new film Shame came with one of those as a preface. Or maybe, in my case, a warning that “those of a squeamish or sensitive disposition should perhaps look away for the next 101 minutes”.
For all that it’s called Shame, it shows little abashment when laying out, as starkly as is legal, the full, squalid horror of sex addiction. It takes its subject very seriously indeed, thrusting it in front of your eyes and making you watch every grunt and grimace – the camera rarely averts its gaze. Yet, even with a high number of stickily realistic sex scenes, Shame still manages to be a resolutely unsexy film. McQueen’s crowning achievement has been to make sex addiction look as repellent onscreen as heroin addiction. It’s harrowing stuff.
The Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, the addict in question. Other than his work as some kind of successful corporate office drone in New York, his addiction consumes most of his life. He lives alone in a small apartment, with live sex shows on his laptop, cupboards full of hardcore pornographic magazines, and the knowledge that even his computer in work is full of the stuff. The extent of his addiction means that his life is a succession of advances towards women in bars, in clubs and even on the Subway; or, failing a free hit, he can always employ a prostitute or two. In fact, it’s so acute that even after a conquest, he still has to masturbate at home and in the toilets at work.
It’s all incredibly unsettling. The torrent of emotionless sex scenes becomes increasingly difficult and discomforting to watch. With McQueen’s camera so deliberately intrusive, it becomes the most upsetting voyeuristic experience. But this is what also makes it brilliant. Under such scrutiny, an actor must be 100% believable and Fassbender is simply astonishing at making this character live. It’s early in the year but already this looks like a multi-award winning performance. Brandon’s tendency to wander around his apartment nude even suggests Fassbender’s penis may end up with its own IMDb page.
I remember a detail from the blurb for Driller Killer which claimed that “a steel stomach is required to watch the final scenes of mayhem”. Well, when Brandon goes on a climactic night of binge sex, first to a seedy bar, then to an even seedier club and finally to a private room with two prostitutes, it was a good test of my own constitution. I found myself flinching, cowering and wishing for these extended scenes of graphic compulsion to end.
Fortunately, there is respite in amongst all this. Carey Mulligan turns in a brilliant performance as Brandon’s needy and tragic sister Sissy, a singer hoping to make it big in New York but, despite a show-stopping piano rendition of New York, New York, looking hopelessly doomed from the start. And Nicole Beharie is also superb as Marianne, a work colleague who provides Brandon’s only flicker of potential romance and redemption.
But I left the cinema feeling genuinely shocked by Shame. Is this because I am a natural prude, or is it simply that Steve McQueen has managed to make something close to a horror film about horrible sex? It could be a mixture of both. On one hand, it’s a very good, very important film about a controversial subject that needed to be tackled; on the other, I know I never want to see it again.