Culture & Conversation

Feel Good, It Ain’t

A naked man wanders his apartment as a woman’s voice pleads with his answering machine. It’s Steve McQueen’s star sex addict, Brandon Sullivan, painfully indifferent and in dire need of a trim. It’s not his fault he’s emotionally unavailable. Maybe it all started with that untoward blow to the head.

Why the title Shame still escapes me – if Brandon (Michael Fassbender) experiences moments of post-coital despair, they’re not apparent. Much of the movie he just walks around a shockingly seedy New York, scoping out asses and looking like something out of American Psycho. A man like that checks me out, I’m not messing around biting my bottom lip and crossing my legs. It astonishes me that the pretty redhead on the subway doesn’t feel the same, but I suppose the villainous psychopath aura has its charm.

(Wait, how is it even possible to feature an answering machine in a film in 2011?)

More importantly: just what is the difference between obsessive sex fiend and free-loving realist?

Here’s what a sex addict looks like: Brandon is a successful New Yorker with a high-profile job who hires prostitutes and masturbates in bathroom stalls at work. He fucks strangers on shadowy street corners, watches porn as he eats Chinese take-out, and goes to gay swingers clubs when he’s feeling down. His longest relationship is four months and he believes marriage “just isn’t realistic”. When sex gets too intimate, he loses his erection. He goes running when he can’t have it, looking like he’s in a mad dash to hold up a 7-11 in black tuque and zippered hoodie.

Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is not much better off in the Well-Adjusted Human Being department. She carries her scars on her forearms, sleeps around with married men, and drinks milk straight out of the carton. Her wardrobe consists of leopard print coats and vintage hats over bleached blonde hair. She looks like her lipstick should be smeared, but it always stays resolutely in place.

When Brandon isn’t otherwise engaged in looking psychopathic, much of Shame centres around his disturbing relationship with Sissy. She walks around in half-dress and pesters her brother like a jilted lover, until even I kind of wanted to slap her in the face. Brandon gets in a snit when Sissy walks in on him masturbating. At least he has some sense of propriety, though tackling her naked and screaming “What do you want from me?” ad nauseam doesn’t help the American Psycho vibe.

It’s an almost incestuous relationship worthy of Six Feet Under. And in fact Brenda goes to a support group for sex addiction, which I always had trouble wrapping my head around. Why not just go to AA and tell your troubles to a bunch of sympathetic bottles of vodka?

(Do David Duchovny and Tiger Woods sit in on a weekly support group and share their woes?)

To be fair, Shame does tug at the heartstrings, and I know that deep down our dear sex fiend is not really so bad. Under that veneer of emotionless sex-crazed creepiness, he just craves love. McQueen gets this tragedy across with the insistent over-the-top darkness of the film, complete with soundtrack worthy of a British period piece.

In the crowning epiphanic moment, Brandon falls to his knees in the rain. His face crumples like a dirty rag. Throw in the overblown instrumentals and a ship in the background. Yes, a space of transition, the cusp between land and water. Get that fog machine working. Could this be his moment of redemption? Will he realize the error of his ways? Take on a wife, have 1.6 children and a backyard and a dog? The music crescendoes to a heart-wrenching climax and …

Oscar nomination in the bag …

Well, I won’t ruin it. Impressive acting from Mulligan and Fassbender both, a fascinating and timely topic, but suffice it to say, Shame is not your feel-good movie of the year. A notch above Melancholia in the uplifting department.

About ten thousand under the Muppets.

Shame showing at CO Quartier Latin, AMC Forum 22, and Cinema du Parc.

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