Sunday 11 December 2011

Movie Review: Shame

Somebody told me this film was about sexual addiction. Before going to see the film, I read several reviews and yes this term sexual addiction kept cropping up. However, now that I've seen the film I can tell you two important facets of the film. First, there is nothing sexual or even remotely titillating about the story. Yes, there are sex scenes. Yes, the film has gotten a restrictive rating because of the full frontal nudity but there is nothing "exciting" as such. Secondly, there is a theme about sexual obsession, sexual addiction if you will and it isn't pretty, well, addiction itself isn't pretty, but I walked away with the impression that there was more to the story than just addiction. There is a backstory to the main character which is left unexplained in the film but is occasionally alluded to suggesting the addictive behaviour is the outward manifestation of some childhood trauma that the main character has never managed to come to grips with.

Brandon Sullivan, played superbly by Michael Fassbender, is a 30-something yuppie living the good life in New York. However his dark side seems to be non-stop porn and masturbation with a series of quick, unfulfilling sexual liaisons that highlight his complete detachment from any personal relationship. It is a telling moment during a dinner date when he explains how marriage is useless then confesses to four months being his longest relation. You might say that his attitude comes from his addiction but I strongly felt his attitude came from this unexplained childhood trauma and his addictive approach to sex was an example of his immature and undeveloped relationship skills.

How big was this childhood trauma? Brandon's sister Carrey comes to stay with him for a bit and if ever was there a brother and sister relation which had an undertone of weird, this was it. "We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place," says Sissy. Whatever has happened, it must have been horrible. We eventually see Sissy's forearms and she has tried to cut her wrists not once, not twice, but at least six or seven times. The fact that she has failed to kill herself so many times seems to be very much a cry for help and shows how brother and sister have chosen to deal with their pain however it was caused: Brandon immerses himself in sex; Sissy tries to commit suicide.

While the movie is about the central character Brandon and other reviewers use the term sexual addiction when discussing his behaviour, no one picked up on what others were doing. Brandon's boss is a married man with at least one little boy. In one scene, Brandon's boss is at a dance club slash bar with some colleagues celebrating a win at work and boss, a little drunk on booze and success, tries to pick up a woman, the suggestion is that he does this regularly. He fails but in another scene ends up having sex with Brandon's sister. A woman at this bar offers Brandon a lift outside the club and within minutes is having sex with him outside at some undisclosed location against a wall. The movie starts out with Brandon exchanging eye contact with a woman on a subway. We see she's wearing a wedding ring. While nothing happens then, the movie ends with Brandon seeing the same woman on the subway again and once again they exchange eye contact and once again we see her wedding ring and once again the suggestion is that she's going to end up having sex with Brandon. My point is that while the movie is about Brandon and his questionable behaviour, there are lots of other people involved in what anyone would label as being not normal, risky or outrageous behaviour. It's almost as though Brandon's crime, if there is a crime, is that he got caught while the others have not. Yet. If you go out and get falling down drunk on Saturday night, that's blowing off steam but if you do it, let's say, two or three times a week, well, that's bad. I am reminded of the question of just what is "normal". The boss who cheats on his wife? The woman in the bar who picks up a guy and immediately has sex with him? The wife who dangerously flirts with a total stranger on the subway?

The Movie's Rating in the U.S.: NC-17
Due to the movie's frontal nudity and graphic depictions, Shame has received the most restrictive rating a film can get. In the United States, NC-17 is a rating which stands for no child under the age of 17 will be admitted, the same as Canada's R or Restricted. Apparently such a rating is called the kiss of death for a film as this excludes a huge segment of the market and studios will appeal such a rating in order to get it reduced to R for Restricted. In the US, R for Restricted means children under the age of 17 can attend if accompanied by an adult which is the same as 18A in Canada.

It is interesting to note that this rating is reserved for "extreme" films but there is a huge difference between the United States and Canada. In Canada, "extreme" usually refers to violence while in the U.S., it usually refers to explicit nudity. I have to chuckle. This movie gets a rating of NC-17 in the States while the movie Machete (my review), which featured over 70 people being killed, garnered an R rating meaning those under 17 could watch it with an adult. (see my blog Censorship: Kill me but no sex please)

Sex Addiction
Review after review discusses the film while mentioning the term sex addiction giving the impression this film is specifically about that condition. Be forewarned that the story, the real story lies off-camera in some trauma suffered by our protagonist during his childhood. I contend that this isn't a movie about the condition of sex addiction per se; this is a film about a man whose emotional life has been completely messed up by whatever this incident was. However I would like to return to this term sex addiction in a separate article. I am concerned that as with this film, the term is being blindly applied to all sorts of situations without addressing the underlying issues. Prohibition didn't solve alcoholism and abstinence doesn't stop abortions. Besides, how can anybody criticize Brandon while ignoring the non-stop salacious going-ons of the other characters in the story?

Final Word
This isn't a feel-good film. This isn't a date film. Even if you see it together, I find it hard to believe you'll be sitting around at dinner afterwards dissecting the nuances of the acting. This is the type of story where you say to yourself afterwards, "Holy crap!" and thank your lucky stars that isn't your life.

Some critics are talking about the film as Oscar material. Good question. This is a well acted, well filmed movie; the type of opus which could capture the attention of those who vote on the best. However this is certainly not what I call a date movie and this certainly isn't the type of film you'll be coming back to again and again. When I was a kid, it was an annual tradition to watch The Wizard of Oz. I have seen things like Star Wars and The Matrix more than once. Somehow I can't quite imagine I'll be coming back to revisit Shame anytime soon. This is a look at a disturbing aspect of the human condition that a normal person wants to avoid. Yes, while you're there, you stare much in the same way you stare at a car wreck as you're driving by on the highway, however it is something, when you think about it, that you want to avoid at all costs.

I recommend the film - it is excellent - but I add the caveat that this is an ugly side of life; this is one strange story.


Rotten Tomatoes: Shame: 77%
Boasting stellar performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, Shame is a powerful plunge into the mania of addiction affliction.

Wikipedia: Shame (2011 film)
Shame is an erotic drama film co-written and directed by Steve McQueen, starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Shame was co-produced by Film4 and See-Saw Films. Shame's explicit sexual scenes resulted in this film being rated NC-17 in the United States.

official movie web site: Shame

Toronto Star - Dec 1/2011
Shame will reopen NC-17 film rating debate
It has generated festival buzz, critical praise and early Oscar whispers. And when Shame is released on Friday, it will also revive a scorched debate about a film rating known as “the kiss of death.”

Oye! Times - Dec 11/2011
Movie Review: Shame by William Belle
I am reprinting this comment to my review, not because it's complimentary, but because it points out that Shame is not a movie about sex addiction.

Great Review - Movie Isn't an Addiction 101 — amy eden 2011-12-12 09:51
Yours is a great article, thanks. I can already see the rise in articles across the news and entertainment media about "Sex Addiction," and they all reference this movie, "Shame." So without trying, this movie has become the default definition of what sex addiction is. With how unlikely people are to research further, this isn't good! I like the points you make. The guy in the movie could have chosen any other means for numbing himself but happened to choose sex -- just as drink doesn't make the alcoholic, sex doesn't make the addict either. It's the in-the-present-moment-and-all-the-emotions-present-there avoidance that's the driver. There's a scene in which the main character asks his date where she's like to be, past or present -- and she replies, "Here, now." He thinks the present moment is boring - he doesn't want to be Here and Now. And that is probably too subtle for many viewers, but that's a good signal that this person is uncomfortable being, just being -- and that's a good recipe for addiction.
amy eden


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Molly said...

Throughout the film and afterwards, I had the same thoughts in terms of Brandon and Sissy's past. In the film, I wish they would have elaborated a little more on the back plot so the viewer would have a better understanding of Brandon and Sissy's problems. As a sociologist when it comes to addictions and "abnormal" behaviors, I always wonder what life events occurred to result in such behavior.

Great review and insight; I like that you didn't focus on just the sex addiction like other reviewers.

Pauline Gaines said...

OK, this was a great perspective on the movie and I agree with you that there was nothing remotely sexy about it. That said, I do think it was a spot-on portrayal of sex addiction because SA usually comes from childhood trauma (as you point out) and manifests as an attachment/intimacy disorder which all the characters, particular Fassbender, has. It's notable that when he finally meets a woman with whom he could have a meaningful relationship, he loses his erection, which causes more shame so that he spirals further down into the abyss.

Maybe because I've worked with sex addicts -- I didn't feel the need to know about the details of the childhood trauma, I could make up my own story of what happened to Brandon and Sissy.

As for the ending -- I thought it was ambivalent. I wasn't so sure that Brandon was going to have sex with the woman on the train, or at least, he had much more hesitation and less compulsivity than he had before.