So be warned, all you genteel people out there: The people in “Shame” have no shame. They are not only not shy about their sexuality, they are unceasingly showcasing it. They are not only not bashful, they are downright exhibitionist. They are not nobly nude, they are starkly naked. It’s not about covenantal commitment between a man and a woman, it’s about self-gratification with little regard and no love for the other. Yes, for many gentle folk, it will not only prance up to the line of pornography, it will bend over bare-bottomed and show you much more than you care to see. As far as sex on screen in contemporary cinema, it shoots you the moon.
And yet….and yet. It deals with some of the darkest corners of sexuality in a shadowy area that few have dared to tread: addiction. And it does so in a way that is so searingly honest that we cannot help but be impacted. You cannot watch this film and be unaffected. And so this movie will, undoubtedly, garner Oscar attention, and you, gentle reader, will have to decide if you have the constitution to withstand its unblinking descent to the depths of depravity.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is an obviously successful New York City businessman, in one of those modern firms where employees work at their laptops and confer in quiet but intense meetings, as if this is serious and we have our competitors and we have to be on top of our game at all times. The co-workers are young and savvy. There’s not much humor, or camaraderie either, at least on the job. After hours is a different story, maybe, but what happens at other places stays at other places.
But when Brandon gets home to his nicely furnished apartment, he lets out his libido. He gets online and does porn over the Internet, the interactive kind, where the models will do things on a webcam and say things into your headset that you wouldn’t want your mother to see or hear. But even that’s not enough. Brandon has to “take care of himself” frequently afterwards – in the shower, in the bedroom, and yes, even in the men’s room at work. He’ll pay for an “escort service” to send someone to his place, and he’ll pay her, and afterwards send her away, still not satisfied. He’ll go to a club or a bar and meet someone, and maybe even couple furtively in a dark alley, but he doesn’t “date” for long and he doesn’t bring them home. Because he really can’t stand to be “in relationship.” That would involve his emotions. And all that’s involved for him is his runaway fantasy world of strange women as sex objects. The minute they stop being strangers, he’s no longer interested.
Who will deliver him from his own determined self-dissipation? Well, his sister comes to visit, rather unexpectedly, and needless to say, this puts a big crimp in his continual need for personal privacy. Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is so open about her own nudity and crying need for affection that at first we wonder if this is some kind of really taboo incestuous relationship, but it’s not quite like that, either. She’s tremendously sad, vulnerable, needy and lonely, and wants her brother to be there emotionally for her, but he just can’t. He can’t make himself attach to anyone. There’s this girl at work that he likes, and who’s young and attractive, so he tries to “date” like a normal person, but…he can’t get himself interested. He’s so into his fantasy addictions that they have completely substituted for reality. And clingy Sissy is left out, no matter how hard she cries.
Michael Fassbender is so intense and dedicated to this role that he completely convinces us that he is this pitiful character. And Carey Mulligan is such a perfect counterpoint with her own compulsions that we aren’t at all surprised they’re related. And the angst of never being able to meet each other’s needs is only a mirror image of their desperate, needy, insatiable loneliness with the rest of the world.
This movie will send the viewer away reeling with its gut-level impact. It will neither give any emotional quarter nor ask it. But it will demand your wide-eyed attention.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.