If you know anything about this movie, you probably know that it's rated NC-17 - a rating that has sadly become synonymous with "porn" for a lot of movie theaters and the fear of which has led a lot of quality storytelling for adults get chopped up and artistically compromised. (I use the word "adult" here in the literal sense, not in the "adult entertainment" sense.) Kudos to Fox Searchlight for putting it out there as an NC-17. Not that they really had a choice once they decided to distribute it, because director Steve McQueen (not to be confused with that other Steve McQueen) was adamant about not cutting one frame.
I have a fairly particular stance on sex in movies. While exploitation has its place, sex scenes in mainstream movies have to have a purpose other than telling the audience "these characters are having sex." There are too many other ways to meaningfully convey that to relegate onscreen lovemaking to a mere story beat. (See the beginning of Barefoot in the Park, for an example of the right way to do it.) Screen sex, in my opinion, should always be about revealing something about the characters involved. It's the most intimate and revealing situation that characters can be in, and can be a brilliant way to unveil or underline something about someone. There is a great deal of sex going on in Shame, but none of it is expository.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a New Yorker who works in an office doing we-don't-know-or-care-what. Things come easy to Brandon and he doesn't have to try very hard, either in his job or with women. He's single, good looking, financially well off, and living in both an era and a city where everything is available to him whenever he wants it. This might sound like paradise, but we quickly see that for Brandon it's a punishment. He is a sex addict, if such a thing does exist (psychiatrists are divided on it). Sex is not fun for Brandon; it is a compulsion that is slowly consuming his life. If that sounds ridiculous, it wouldn't after you'd seen Michael Fassbender in this film. There's a moment near the end, when his character is climaxing, that is one of the most horrible things I've ever seen happen on an actor's face. The camera closes in on his face, and he looks for all the world like he is dying in the utmost agony. I've never seen anything like that.
Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to his apartment to crash for a few days that turns into an indefinite amount of time. There is something in both hers and Brandon's past that haunts them, but the movie doesn't clarify it beyond a few subtle hints. But her visit brings the burden of his addiction into sharp relief. He can't bring a woman home while she's there and there are certain things he doesn't like having in the apartment in case she snoops around and finds them. After spending so much time immersed his own needs, it's suddenly quite inconvenient to have someone else to look out for and he can't really take it. Add to that the fact that his addiction is starting to affect his professional life as well, and Brandon is very near a breaking point.
The women (and in one case, man) Brandon screws are nameless (well, one of them has a name, but you've forgotten it as soon as she says it). They're things, just as Brandon's own body is a thing, that he uses and (more accurately) abuses. The one woman he tries to have a normal relationship with he can't bring himself to have sex with, and when I say "normal relationship" I'm being charitable, because they go on exactly one dinner date before he tries to seduce her the next day. When Brandon finally breaks, it's quite hard to watch, but the rather perfect end of the film gives you the hope that he's turned a corner and is on his way to getting better.
Challenging subject matter aside, this is a FANTASTICALLY made film - beautifully shot, with lots of great little touches, particularly in the sound mixing. Performances are phenomenal, especially Michael Fassbender, and I'm so glad that he's being seriously talked about (and promoted by the studio) as a player in the Best Actor race (which seemed impossible a couple of months ago, given how explicit the films is). Carey Mulligan is at her best here, as far as I'm concerned, and those of you who were wondering if she could sing well enough to pull off the still-in-development My Fair Lady remake - yes, yes she can. I want a recording of her rendition of "Start Spreadin' the News" right the heck now.
I still have yet to see the other McQueen-Fassbender collaboration, Hunger, but have new incentive to do so. Again, this film is not for everyone, but it is an astounding piece of work.