From the outside, Brandon seems to have it all – a well paying job at a top New York firm, a swanky apartment and the ability to seduce nearly any woman into giving him what he wants. Yet, the relentless pursuit of physical and sexual gratification is his secret shame, transforming what was likely once a source of boundless pleasure into an insatiable, joyless and inescapable compulsion.
In his latest film Shame, British visual artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen presents a relentless case study of one of the most controversial forms of addiction in contemporary society: sex addiction. Sex addiction as a term originated in the mid-1970s out of similar feelings of helplessness and powerlessness described by compulsive drinkers in Alcoholics Anonymous. The National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity defines sexual addiction as “engaging in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior acted out despite increasing negative consequences to self and others.”
From the opening frame we see Brandon, portrayed by the incendiary and well-hung Michael Fassbender, indulge his compulsion in varying degrees of depravity: jerking off in the bathroom at work during his lunch break, intense eye fucking with a woman on the subway, a rough one night stand in an alley on his way from a bar with a woman his boss was trying to pick up and paying a professional to take care of the job when no one else is available.
This tightly constructed routine is shaken by the arrival of Sissy, Brandon’s sister, played by Carey Mulligan. Thinking she’s an unsavory intruder, Brandon bursts in on her in the bathroom where she’s naked, having just exited the shower. He throws a towel at her to cover herself up, which she uses coyly to pat off some of the water on her skin, leaving herself nearly fully exposed. Clearly these two have boundary issues, the source of which are never really explained more than Sissy’s utterance, “we’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.”
As her neediness and self-destructive behavior become more and more of a threat to his self-control, it manifests in Brandon as anger. He’s used to getting whatever he wants out of women, and the fact that he can’t get what he seems to want most from Sissy leads him down a dangerous path.
Sex addition differs from alcoholism and drug addiction in that the addict isn’t only hurting themselves. In using other people to feel better about him or herself, the sex addict leaves a trail of hurt, use and abuse of others in their wake. In Shame, this is personified by Marianne, an attractive woman at Brandon’s office that he goes on a rather awkward date with, then later invites to a fancy hotel for some afternoon delight. With the weight of a real connection weighing on his shoulders, Brandon is unable to maintain an erection, resulting in one of the film’s most heart-breaking scenes where he throws her out without even looking at her. For Brandon, this seems like the ultimate shame, propelling him into a deeper downward spiral of self-gratification.
For a film that never once utters the words sex addiction, it makes a powerful, if somewhat unfulfilling statement about the disorder. This definitely isn’t one of those feel-good films where the protagonist overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to emerge a better person at the end. Its unflinching honesty and the fearless raw performance by Fassbender have brought the subject of sex addition beyond jokes by snickering late night TV show hosts and given it a relatable, human edge.