I recently watched the film “Shame,” directed by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful person in his 30’s living in New York who suffers from a sexual addiction. It is a truly amazing film, and it’s really unfortunate that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award last year. Unfortunately, the existence of the film and the reaction to it say almost as much as the film itself does.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
It’s difficult to classify specifically what Brandon’s addiction is, and the film wisely doesn’t try and explain it for us. Instead, the film simply observes his behavior and his interactions with others. It simultaneously tries to make a statement about addiction in general, but also sets out to tell a very personal story as well. We see Brandon engaging in as many sexual encounters as possible. He takes several breaks during work to masturbate in a bathroom stall. He always arrives late to work, even though he leaves his apartment early. He takes long lunches and takes off during the afternoon to have sex with prostitutes. He starts looking at porn and masturbating as soon as he gets home, and doesn’t stop until he goes to bed. His life is consumed by sex.
Brandon’s sister Sissy is a singer trying to make it in New York, but hasn’t had a lot of luck. Early in the film, she stops by Brandon’s apartment and asks to stay with him because she doesn’t have anywhere else to stay. Brandon, desperate to conceal his addiction, is very reluctant to say yes but he eventually relents. They don’t get along and constantly fight, but she stays and he doesn’t throw her out. We learn that Sissy cuts herself and it is implied that she has attempted to commit suicide in the past. Both of their pasts are shrouded in mystery, but we get the impression that they went through a shared trauma together.
Brandon sometimes goes out in the evening with his boss, David, to various bars and lounges. David is the type that hits on anything that moves, and usually fails spectacularly. Brandon never hits on anyone, which ironically makes him more attractive to others than David does. Brandon never puts any effort into picking up women at all; if they happen to want to have sex, then all the better, but otherwise he couldn’t care less. I suspect that Brandon doesn’t try because he is so used to porn/prostitutes who don’t say no that pursuing women at a bar just isn’t worth the effort. One night, David and Brandon go to hear Sissy sing, leading to one of the best scenes in the entire film.
Brandon eventually asks a co-worker, Marianne, out one evening which leads to a very awkward dinner. Brandon obviously doesn’t know how to act around real people. At one point, he goes to a hotel with Marianne where they try to have sex, but Brandon isn’t able to maintain an erection. It’s a rather unusual situation for someone with a sex addiction, but at the same time it kinda makes sense. Brandon is not used to having to care about the sexuality of a partner, and indeed is not used to having any connection at all with his partner. It’s possible that Brandon feels that having sex with Marianne is letting her into his secret life, making him apprehensive. Or perhaps it’s that sex with Marianne is a little to “real” for him. Or maybe it’s just simply too much effort. Sex with prostitutes is an act of fantasy that is completely focused on Brandon, so this situation just doesn’t fit with his usual experiences.
The comparisons with drug abuse are obvious, but there are a few key differences. Drug abuse has, in a way, become “accepted.” Not in the sense that it’s OK to be addicted to drugs, but in the sense that it’s OK to admit if you have a problem. Society has accepted that drug abuse is just a part of modern society, albeit an undesirable one. Sex addiction, however, has no such acceptance. Admitting that one is a sex addict is likely to result in much shaming and revulsion for all but the most experienced therapists. It must be an incredibly lonely experience compared to other addictions. We see this in the reaction of Brandon when his sister catches him masturbating one evening. This, in and of itself, isn’t that big of a deal; most guys, myself included, have been caught masturbating at least once in their lives. Normally it’s just an embarrassing situation that you get over quickly, but not so with Brandon: he utterly flips out. He is aware that sex addiction is universally reviled, and is freaked out that his may be exposed. While most addicts display similar behavior, the severity of the reaction for Brandon seems much greater.
The climactic moment in the movie has Brandon spiraling out of control wherein he goes on a sex “bender.” He goes to clubs, meets up with prostitutes, and even frequents a gay bar where he hooks up with some men, something he hadn’t shown an inclination for before. It seems obvious that Brandon just needs more and more, and is willing to try anything to satisfy his cravings. Like any addiction, his fixes become less and less fixating over time, requiring him to do more and more to satisfy him. During this time, Sissy attempts to commit suicide. When Brandon finally gets home, he finds her in a pool of blood on his bathroom floor. She survives, barely, and Brandon is utterly shaken. He resolves himself to rid himself of his addiction, and we get the sense that he may finally find some resolution. But, as in reality, this is not bound to last. While riding on the subway, Brandon exchanges glances with a beautiful woman and we immediately know that he has slipped back into his old habits. Although not exactly an uplifting ending, it is sadly realistic. People who overcome their addictions are, unfortunately, in the minority.
One frustrating aspect of this film is it’s rating. This film was rated NC-17, and that is absolutely absurd. It’s not surprising in the least, but it’s still absurd. In any absolute measure of the sense, there wasn’t anything in this film that Eyes Wide Shut, Original Sin, or Basic Instinct didn’t also have. So what makes this movie different? Two things: it contained full male nudity, and it contained gay sex. This is something that just pisses me off to no end: full female nudity is perfectly OK (hell, PG-13 rated Titanic had full female nudity), but full male nudity is verboten. It’s a perfect example of the inherit sexism present in the mainstream media. They feel that women are supposed to be sex objects, and men aren’t. Same thing with sex. Heterosexual sex can be very explicit, as long as it’s not hardcore, to be R rated as Original Sin showed. But if it’s gay sex? Forget it. That this film was rated NC-17 shows off perfectly well the biases in mainstream movie industry today, and shows just how far we have to go before we really achieve equality. At least we have people like Steve McQueen who are willing to make films the way they need to be made, regardless of the impact it will have on their bottom line.