Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Release Date: 13th January 2012
Reviewed by Zach Boren
Sex Addiction, the subject of Director Steve McQueen’s Shame, has developed into a particularly 21st century condition. The Internet is the ultimate outlet for sexually addictive behaviours; the services it can provide, from pornography to sexual liaisons, enable both anonymity and escalation. Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict. He has one-night stands; he hoards pornography; he compulsively masturbates; his every interaction is sexualized. For much of the film, Brandon is defined exclusively by his insatiable desire. He seems to value only his sexuality, believes himself to be little else. As such, Brandon represents the affliction from which he suffers.
The film’s title is central to its exploration of Sex Addiction. Shame is universal; everyone has it. The type of shame that consumes Brandon, that dictates everything that he does, is toxic. Author John Bradshaw believes that toxic shame can always be recognized in those who have suffered abuse as a child, in those who have been traumatized into disrepair. Likewise, toxic shame is often associated with addiction.
Brandon’s sexual compulsion is his escape from unending self-loathing. Sex is an anesthetic, a temporary reprieve from his crippling shame. It is but one way in which he runs from his feelings. Director McQueen stages two terrific scenes in which Brandon is running. The first, in which he pursues a woman through a New York subway station, represents chasing relief from his constant shame; the woman embodies the possibilities that he is unable to actualize. The second scene reveals the nature of Brandon’s psychology; he returns home to find his sister having sex with his boss and, to escape, goes jogging. The sequence that follows is tremendous. Brandon runs down the busy streets of New York, closed off and unaware of what is happening around him; the camera stays with him, never wavering. He is not simply running, he is running away. This is a demonstration of the flight response to trauma and gives the audience an insight into the source of Brandon’s anguish, and his addiction.
The film never explains why Brandon and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) have ended up as they have. There are allusions to sexual abuse but nothing is explicit. Sissy explains, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place”. They are self-destructive, believing themselves to be worthless. This is a consequence of an abusive upbringing. They have been told, been led to believe, that they do not deserve love, that sex is their only value. This is illustrated in Brandon’s inability (or refusal) to consummate a burgeoning relationship; he is not worthy of a real relationship. In that scene, you can see the moment that he is overcome with shame. In the throes of passion, he jumps up, as though he is terrified, and wanders across the apartment; he is on the verge of tears. So absolute is this feeling that he can barely talk, he is even unable to look at this woman with whom he seems to have shared a sincere connection.
What’s worse is how Brandon and his sister perpetuate their shame cycle, triggering in each other the escalating impulse to act out. Sissy’s very presence is painful, she represents the pain, and the shame, that Brandon is constantly trying to escape. He tells her, “You’re a weight on me”. He passes his shame on to Sissy who, unable to cope, attempts suicide.
Where is he when she slits her wrists? He is unraveling. He is on a sex binge. Like a drug, sex is mood altering; it allows Brandon to disassociate. On this night, however, he falls to pieces. He asked his sister, “Why am I so fucking angry?” and, on this night, we see that anger. He laughs maniacally as he shoves his fingers in a man’s face, asking him to smell his girlfriend’s desire. This is his fight response. He is furious and he is devastated. He needs an outlet.
When he returns to find Sissy in a pool of blood, he is forced to confront his addiction. He will feel shame, perhaps more than he ever has. He will act out; he will have sex in whatever capacity he can. When that disassociation ends, as it always does, he will again confront his shame. It is a cycle, perhaps unending. The addiction feeds off of the shame, the shame off of the addiction. How can it be stopped?
Zachary Boren was the Film Coordinator for The British Independent Film Awards and is a regular contributor to the Raindance Film Festival.