The biggest misconception one can have walking out of director Steve McQueen’s latest film, Shame, is that the movie's sole focus is on the regrets one might have over a sexual addiction. It seems, initially, as if that might be true watching Brandon (Michael Fassbender) in full frontal nudity with an increasingly more noticeable dogged look about him as he wanders soulless from frame to frame and from encounter to encounter.

But you are misled if you think that Shame is simply about the ramifications of uncontrolled sexual impulses. Presumably, the film looks to the viewer to see beyond surfaces, even if it means imagining what is never revealed on screen. Brandon is more of a paradox than a contradiction, a shell of someone who has everything we want; good looks, charisma, a career, an apartment with a view and money. He has a way about him that makes him the envy among men and irresistible to all women — a "fix" can be as easy for him as making eye contact on a subway ride home.
But the women he hires (and he hires many) are quite capable to take him and leave him. They themselves are like him, except they’ve turned their emptiness into a career, he’s turned his into an addiction. They know hundreds just like him, men who substitute their desire with need and confuse their lust as passion. There's a reason these women call men like him tricks: It takes skill and a sleight of hand to make the intimacy real for a few fleeting moments before it evaporates into thin air.
McQueen tricks us too. He calls the film Shame and we believe it’s because Brandon is tortured by a life without true emotional connection. There's no distinction between his face contorted in ecstasy as when it's contorted in despair. Rarely is the link between pain and pleasure so clearly and devastatingly illustrated.
He needs and he needs and he needs, mainlining pornography off a computer screen like coke off a mirror (he does that too). Left alone he is glued to his laptop, one hand feverishly driving him deeper into whatever sexual lure has him hooked. So far gone is he that his work computer is filled with pornographic evidence of his obsessions despite working in an open office area.
He's capable of remorse, or so we might think. We assume he's remorseful for what he’s done and what he can't do. But it's worse than that. His is the remorse of a man who has assumed a guilt that does not belong to him.
The only clue McQueen gives us, and it's a doozy, is when his sister (Carey Mulligan), an equally troubled soul with the added burden of feeling too much instead of too little, tells him, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”

Sissy seems hopelessly damaged, far too comfortable being naked in front of her brother, and singing "New York, New York" at an upscale piano bar like it were a blood-stained suicide note.
It’s heartbreaking watching these two, not only because of how much they need each other (even if only one of them recognizes it), but because so many viewers will waste their time pondering the complexities of an addiction that could just be as simple as a man who really enjoys sex.  
“Brandon is not married. He’s not in a relationship,” Laments the couple behind me leaving the theatre. “Where’s the harm?”
The harm, people might argue, is that Brandon is destined to a life alone of meaningless one night stands and back-alley quickies. But if it were only that then Shame would be nothing more than a rudimentary showcase for a suspicious affliction. We would question the validity of a sexual addiction as being no more destructive than an active libido.
If you look at Shame solely as a film about sexual addiction you might leave wondering what the fuss is all about. But if you think the film is about the ramifications of sexual abuse, and carrying the shame that victims often do, then you have a completely different perspective. And that is why movies are important, and talking about movies even more so – so that those subtleties can be revealed and discovered.

Director: Steve McQueen
Running Time: 101 minutes

2 Comments | Add a Comment
Clearly this move is about sexual abuse. Not seeing that shows that people are just not connected with the amount of sexual abuse that is in society in general, that 1 in 6 men are sexually abused and that men can be sexually abused. That was the point of this film - it seems that he enjoys sex - but obviously it is a form of pain. We are a far ways to go as a society to realize that sexual abuse happens and keeps happening in our society. That is why this film is important and had to be made.
Thom, I didn't link their past to sexual abuse. I was left wondering what bad place they came from. I guess that could be part of it and would account for the title. But I do think you could substitute any addiction for the sexual addiction portrayed. Imagine him as a drug addict, a needle user, an alcoholic. He'd do it at work, when he was angry (as he does in the bathroom at work), when he was sad, whenever he realized he couldn't connect or cope with the people around him (as is the case with his sister when she needs him most). As you write, the link between pain and pleasure is easy to see when it's a sexual addiction, but it could be anything. Powerful film.
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