Shame is the best movie about sex since Shortbus, even though it’s not really about sex, because sex addiction is not really about sex. Brandon and Cissy are brother and sister who moved to New York from Ireland when they were children. Cissy sings “New York, New York” during a pivotal nightclub scene. She makes a dirge out of the usually joyful anthem of self-determination, the piano accompaniment so chromatic and unmoored it’s almost atonal. Sometimes it’s our shame not our pride determining the course of our lives.
We never find out what happened to these siblings as children, but when Cissy says to her brother in one of the many many despondent voicemails she leaves after the many many times that he does not pick up, “we’re not bad people; we just come from a bad place,” we understand that we don’t need the details. These adults are damaged and they have no idea what to do about it.
Brandon has a good job and enough money to spend on prostitutes and pornography and pick-ups. His sexual compulsion is rampant. Baudelaire says that compulsion is not hunger for the specifics but hunger for the code. Brandon gets nothing out of these incidents of sex, nothing fills him; he remains hungry for something to soothe the wound, something that only feels comforted in the momentary drive to orgasm. Seconds later he is revealed, still empty, compelled toward the next fuck.
When his sister descends uninvited to stay on his couch, his game is thrown off. Her damage might be the same, but where his attachment injury has led toward an avoidant style, hers has led to a clingy, anxious one. He listens to her horrifyingly debasing calls to her ex-boyfriend and he watches as she pursues yet another inevitably unfulfilling encounter. “You’re disgusting,” he tells her, angry most likely at the reflection she gives him of himself. He throws out his pornography and even his computer and tries to have an honest to goodness relationship with a woman from his office.
Michael Fassbender’s performance in this film is brave, blistering, and so intense that there were moments I thought my chest would burst watching him. His character is not a talker; he has, maybe, a dozen lines in the movie, and most of them are monosyllabic, so he has to do it all with his eyes and his body and the sounds around the edges of the little grunts he makes. Watch him carefully when his boss gives him a nugget of praise. Listen to him carefully when, his back to the camera, turned away from the kind woman he actually likes and therefore can’t have sex with, he offers to walk her to the elevator. Cissy’s self-hatred might manifest itself in cutting herself, but Brandon’s is just as deep. Fassbender sweats it out of his pores and you end up wrestling with the agony he can’t discharge himself.
They aren’t going to make a musical out of this. It’s not an easy film to watch. I felt a little brutalized when it was all over. My date and I sat in silence for a long time. (It’s not a date movie, btw. See it with your therapist.) For gay men, wounds to self-worth are deep and come from all directions in a society that is largely afraid of and disgusted by us. This movie is about straight people (even though there’s a scene where Brandon ends up in a gay sex club), but I think a lot of gay men will see themselves and many of their friends in this material. It’s certainly possible to be a sex enthusiast and a huge fan of recreational bunga bunga without having a narcissistic wound at the base of it.
However, how many times are we trying to soothe something else when we turn to the physical pleasures? This movie won’t solve the problem for you; it won’t even explain it. It’s all the more powerful for sticking to something raw and simple—a slice of fucking hell. That said, it does what it does so well—the camera work, the music, the acting, the art direction, everything, all fused into a singular bleak vision—that I doubt it could be surpassed. Easily, the best film so far this decade.
Antidote to Shame
There’s really only one film on DVD I want to recommend as a companion view to Shame, and it’s an antidote. Shortbus will remind you that sex is liberating and joyful, that repression is what’s damaging. The many layers of the narrative all explore sexual healing, even if not everyone makes it all the way to happy. Sook-Yin Lee’s performance as the sex therapist who has never had an orgasm is virtuosic. The titular sex club hosted by the lovely Justin Bond is for the sexually gifted and the sexually challenged and everyone is the better for hanging out there, whatever they get up. Sex in this movie is funny and explicit. Don’t take your grandmother (or maybe do!). In my humble opinion, this is one of the most innovative and artistically successful films ever made. The only other film I’ve re-watched multiple times is Casablanca. Do yourself and your grandmother (or maybe not) a favour and check it out.