British movie maker Steve McQueen had to make a choice. In order to have his latest film, “Shame,” taken seriously for awards this season, he would have had to cut many sexually explicit scenes just to appease sensitive viewers. However, removing so many plot-essential moments would have severely compromised the flow and message of the film. Not taking any chances, McQueen (“Hunger”) left it untouched, and “Shame” was released with an NC-17 rating in the U.S. If he had cut even one scene, “Shame” would not have been the breathtaking work of art it is.
New York City business man Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, “X-Men: First Class”) is a sex addict. All he can think about is sex. He constantly craves emotionless, crude, impassionate sex and routinely quenches that thirst. Brandon will often meet women at bars and charm them into his bed. On days when his game is off, he simply pays prostitutes to satisfy his hunger. He watches porn at work and even while he’s eating dinner alone at home. Brandon’s entire life is consumed by sex, but he is at least able to maintain a facade of being a well-off bachelor in the city.
Brandon’s well-groomed lifestyle is interrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan, “Drive”), drops by to stay indefinitely at his apartment. Despite her incredible voice and potential as a singer, she struggles with finding a connection, living a love-struck life of bouncing from one partner to the next while never having her feelings reciprocated. Brandon and Sissy constantly are competing to prove the other’s life is more fucked up, yet neither can get away from their equally devastating afflictions.
Though some may look on Brandon’s high-powered, women-filled life with envy, he truly wants to break free from the vicious cycle and have a normal relationship. Despite using his sister’s visit as a push to begin changing himself, the draw of addiction beckons Brandon back time and again. Brandon’s urges are so unclean that he often stares at his own sister with a predatory gaze. For his and Sissy’s sake, Brandon must choose between combatting his addiction or continuing to spiral out of control.
“Shame” is not for the faint of heart. It never holds back, going so far as to show Brandon’s exposed genitals as he walks around his apartment and even while he urinates. Yet every carnal moment has its purpose, and none of the risqué scenes is meant to sexually arouse the audience. One sex scene in particular is almost too much to bear, as video, audio and emotion become one and climax at an orgasm of cinematic artistry. The film follows suit — with actors bearing all elements of character while still keeping sensitive themes and the underlying message showing through just enough to leave the rest to the audience’s imagination.
An overwhelming performance of “New York, New York,” by Sissy brings even Brandon to tears and sets the film’s overall tone, giving a glimpse at the quality of production “Shame” holds. Every frame, every shot, every facial expression overflows with emotion and meaning. Many scenes are literal portraits of characters; the camera often focuses on them for minutes at a time without moving. When the powerful soundtrack isn’t gently dissecting Brandon’s thoughts or roaring along with his inner demons, it gives way to a deafening silence that speaks at the same volume as the film’s sensitive dialogue.
“Shame” plays with the obvious and subtle and never tries to take its audience for granted. Even in the most awkward of scenes, no plot point ever feels without purpose or meaning. Every fight between Brandon and Sissy pushes their relationship for a reason. Every character they interact with helps lead toward the film’s final ultimatum. At no point does the film rely on gratuitous filler for the sake of shocking the audience. Meticulous attention to detail was key to creating the film, and the outcome is an amazing work of commentary on life, love and lust.
Unforgiving and raw, defining the line between sensual and sexual, “Shame” paints the struggle of sex addiction with brilliant cinematography and gripping performances. It’s no surprise that because of its bold portrayal of a controversial subject and brazen depiction of human sexuality, “Shame” wasn’t taken more seriously this awards season. But in my opinion, “Shame” is the best film of 2011 and should not be missed.
5 stars out of 5