I found myself wondering in Shame if the lead character, Brandon (Michael Fassbinder), realizes that he has an addiction. I’m sure that he would be willing to concede that his sexual lifestyle is different from that of other people, and that he has, at times, felt ashamed or depressed about it, but would he agree that it’s become a problem? Put in a different way – is an addict still an addict if they can admit they are one?

Brandon lives alone in his meticulously clean New York apartment. He has a good job with a nice office. His voicemail inbox is full of messages from his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), pleading with him to call her back. He doesn’t; he erases her messages. He doesn’t seem to have any friends besides his boss (James Badge Dale) who will sometimes invite him out to the bar after they have a closed a particularly important deal. He lives a cultivated and uncomplicated existence, but it’s superficial one. He has control over everything in his life except for his sex addiction. And when his sister arrives at his apartment unannounced, her mere presence upsets the delicate balance (and the facade of normalcy) that Brandon has spent a lifetime maintaining.

Shame is interested in mankind’s fascination with sex on a macro and micro level. On the micro side, we follow one man dealing living with his addiction and the walls he has built around himself to protect him, ironically, from intimacy. On the macro side, the film questions whether mankind is fascinated by sex or obsessed by it. Is the title evocative of Brandon’s shame or is it our collective shame that the film seeks to address and uncover? The film nicely juxtaposes the soft-spoken and polite Brandon with his brash and sexually aggressive – though presumably normal – boss. Should the boss’ actions be considered normal, and if so, why should they be acceptable? The movie doesn’t offer any answers.

The only minor flaw of the film is that Brandon is rarely rebuffed or rejected. Women seem to adore and invite his advances, ignoring the wedding band on their hand or their boyfriend’s presence six feet away. What would be sexual assault instead passes for seduction – with only minor consequences – for Brandon as the women he pursues acquiesce to his desires. Of course, most of the women he sleeps with are paid prostitutes, so this would hardly be surprising, but the ordinary women he meets seem incapable of resisting his advances and this is where the movie felt false for me.

Shame is raw and uncompromising. Michael Fassbinder is quickly proving to be one of the top actors of this generation and his brave and powerful performance as Brandon solidifies that reputation. He is an artist willing to take risks and he delivers an indelible portrait of a man crippled by the invisible and unspoken demons of his past and present.

Grade: A-

Sidenote: Shame also has an incredible soundtrack – one of my favourites of the year.


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