- Vancouver, British Columbia - It was with a fair bit of hesitation that I went to see Shame. The idea behind the film was fascinating enough, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to subject myself to a movie that has so much sexuality in it that in the United States, it earned an NC-17 rating. If anyone is unsure of what that means, it means that no one under 17 is allowed in the theatre regardless of parental accompaniment. This translates to an R rating in Canada, though Shame is 18A up here. It is graphic enough that Michael Fassbender, our lead actor, couldn't watch all of the scenes in it during the initial screening.
Shame follows Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), a man living in New York City keeping his life private as he is caught in a cycle of sex addiction. His life is disrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to stay with him suddenly and for an indefinite amount of time much to Brandon's displeasure. It is a fearless and relentless character portrait of a very difficult subject. While I feared going into it that I was essentially going to watch an art house porno, not long into the film I realized that it was a movie with much more substance than that. In fact, despite the sex and nudity in it, I would call it an anti-porn. It is sexuality on display for the exact opposite reasons why one would watch pornography. Rather than finding completely shallow pleasure in the acts performed on screen, watching Shame is not a pleasurable experience. If you find it 'sexy', you are missing the point of the movie.
It paints a very clear picture of sexual addiction, but I suspect that any addict could connect with this movie. A few years ago I suffered from an addiction and I could see myself in his place. No, I was not a sex addict, but it didn't matter; his struggle was familiar. Micheal Fassbender's performance is so emotionally stirring, it would be an injustice if it didn't get at least an Oscar nomination. It is the key to the success of the film. You could see his struggle so clearly and how it pained him. Orgasms were not for pleasure, but for necessity. And while the film could have gone the way of defining Brandon's character as an addict, we are blessed to see his life beyond his sex life and how he interacts with others. By all accounts he is a normal and a successful man except for this wall of addiction that he hides behind his closed curtains. It is a boundary between him and actual intimacy, sexual or otherwise. Shame really is the ideal name for this film. This, again, translates into other addictions also. There is always a fear of people finding out how you live. For example, I know a hoarder (this is a person who has way too much stuff and keeps everything regardless of how useful it, in case you are unfamiliar with the condition). A while ago, due to a health problem, he needed to have family stay with him. However, the moment people came in the door, it became quite clear that there was nowhere to stay as the entire house was packed with stuff with only a narrow path cleared to get from one room to another. When we tried to help clean the stuff up, it was not a welcomed interruption.
This is where in the film Sissy is brought in. She serves to disrupt the pattern bringing out a physical, as well as internal conflict in Brandon, though she has conflicts of her own. She is also portrayed with a beautiful and dark honesty by Carey Mulligan. She brings her burdens into Brandon's life and in doing so reveals to him the situation he is in. The stress of interrupting his addictive cycle shows him just how much he requires it. That can be a harrowing revelation about one's self. It also shows that his sexuality has so much control in his life that he is unable to be there for the people he cares about. He loves his sister, but he no longer has enough of himself to give to her. All of his energy goes into hiding his reality from her and when his illusion inevitably breaks, tension raises. And it maintains that tension throughout, even though it's all on a completely emotional and psychological level. The dialogue never really delves into it. What you need to know is said behind the words spoken.
I wouldn't recommend this film to everyone for obvious reasons. I definitely feel that its rating should be honoured and if you find that you are sensitive to sexual material, it's likely not for you. I would also say that if you're looking for a "titty flick" then you should go elsewhere. Please respect this film more than that. Shame was one of the most emotionally gripping films I've seen all year and it pained me how much I connected with this character. It is not a film to enjoy, but I feel it was an important one to make. I dare not watch it again.
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes