Chances are you’ve already heard that Shame is basically about Michael Fassbender having a lot of sex. This is true. Mr Fassbender’s manhood should have probably received its own credit, as I’m sure the not-so-wee chap spent more time on screen than ‘Late Night Lover #1’ did. However, this isn’t a film that is just 90 minutes of penis. Film-maker Steve McQueen has managed to steer the film away from ‘gratuitous nearly-porn’ with his trademark lingering delicacy and focus on character.
There has been a tide of interviews and articles recently about the film’s explicit topic and the effect it had on Mr Fassbender. Filmed in just 25 days in New York, the production itself was exhausting, but Fassbender also spent weeks with recovering sex addicts developing his character and some articles even seem to claim that Fassbender became so obsessed with the role that he actually became Brandon Sullivan in his off-screen life. Regardless of whether that is true or not, the fact remains that Fassbender’s performance in this film is hauntingly spot-on. All at once he manages to make Brandon a character that you will despise, envy and pity and the fact he has been overlooked by the Academy is just ludicrous. His troubled relationship with his sister (played by the enchanting Carey Mulligan) is one of the films strongest points. The relationship between the two flits worryingly between abusive and protective. Sissy’s presence, and her own problems with sex, begin to highlight to Brandon the sort of man he has become. The brother-sister relationship also helps de-sexify the film, steering it away from making Brandon’s sex life seem exciting or in any way appealing.
While the film is an interesting look at the downside of humanity and manages to make New York seem like a harsh and lonely place, the film is quite hard work at times. McQueen’s lingering voyeuristic shots perhaps linger a bit too long in this film. No doubt the level of voyeurism achieved is something to be commended, as it makes the ordinary audience member begin to feel somewhat dirty themselves (especially when you can’t really look anywhere but at Fassbender’s manhood), but at times I felt my concentration waning.
This might be a film that improves on repeated viewing. There are so many layers to both Fassbender and Mulligan’s characters that I can truly believe it is easy to miss important points on your first viewing. There is a constant feeling when you first see this film that you are watching but not really looking, a feeling and point that I imagine McQueen is trying to demonstrate. Sex addiction is one of those areas that nobody really wants to talk about. We’re constantly bombarded with information and help for people with drug or alcohol addiction, but sex addiction? Oh good heavens no! It remains a taboo, despite the 21st century’s more progressive attitude to sex on the whole.
Fassbender may not win an Oscar for this one, but I’m pretty sure his tortured and quite frankly disturbing portrayal of a man obsessed with sex will finally make people understand the real danger of this particular addiction and will hopefully go some way to making help more readily available.