What to Watch: “Shame” on HBO GO

Shame” is a 2011 film by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, whom you might recognize better as young Magneto (X-Men: First Class) and Daisy Buchanon (The Great Gatsby), respectively. Brandon (Fassbender) is a rather successful thirty-something working in a nondescript, modern New York office with a rather pig-headed best friend / boss. Despite having great success in his career, a ubiquitous woolen scarf, a really lavish apartment, and more than enough money to be “happy”, Brandon is hiding a dark secret snuck in between the layers of his obsessive compulsions and robot-like routines: he struggles with sexual addiction.

Now, before you start laughing about sexual addiction as some kind of myth or cop-out for being a lecherous slug (re: Usher), consider this: just about anything can become a source of addiction if misused as an unhealthy coping mechanism and taken to an obsessive extreme. Sexual addiction is far more than just a punchline. And apparently it’s called satyriasis for men and nymphomania is reserved exclusively for females. Who knew?

“Shame” engages with sexual addiction on a visceral level, showcasing a whole slew of psychological abnormalities that correlate with that kind of addiction. Brandon has full-blown OCD and when the rigid structure of his life is jeopardized, he becomes riddled with anxiety. Things come to a head when his quirky sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up out of the blue to interrupt his routines. She’s a self-pitying singer with a penchant for self-mutilation, and her genuine affection towards her brother only causes him to stiffen and become even more anxious. This happens to coincide with the IT people at work confiscating Brandon’s computer because it is consumed by all sorts of pornography on his harddrive. Sissy also has sex with Brandon’s aforementioned pig-headed best friend / boss, which enrages him.

What “Shame” showcases so well is the absolute divorce between intimacy and sexuality when it comes to the addiction. Obsession can dehumanize even the most humane of actions, be it sex or eating or even exercise. In the first few scenes of the movie there is practically no dialogue; Brandon will have sex, walk out of his room naked, click on his voice mail, and keep walking to do random tasks like go to the bathroom or get a glass of water from the kitchen, while we hear the foreshadowing of Sissy’s incessant nagging on the voice mails that she leaves (apparently she is his only friend). This highly refined, solitary routine repeats over and over. It then becomes evident that Brandon lacks real companionship in his life. The one would-be relationship that he begins to develop with his female coworker includes a confusing date that ends with no physical contact whatsoever, then an impromptu lunch/sex break in the best hotel room I’ve ever seen. But when it comes down to it, Brandon can’t perform. When forced to combine intimacy with his sexuality, he loses all potency. She leaves and is replaced in minutes with a nameless prostitute to quell his lust.

Basically, he is a sexing machine and has numbed all of his feelings. Brandon has a lot of sex throughout the movie, and in one sequence he even goes on what you could only call a binge. Typically in film, sex scenes will be vaguely shot and short enough that we will never have time to get disgusted with how primal and raw the act of sex actually is. But when you’re watching a three-way happen for several minutes while beautiful, tragic music gradually drags you to the brutal and emotionally devastating climax…? The scene makes you feel uncomfortable and pretty much disgusted.

By the end of the movie, Brandon’s frustrations come to a climax in perhaps the worst way possible and he is forced to realize the severe impact that his addiction has had on his personal life. What it amounts to is a compelling look not just at sexual addiction, but the nature of addiction in general. The sexuality aspect provides a compelling gimmick to keep the viewer’s attention while subtly working in those finer details of the experience.

“Shame” is one of those movies that I am glad to have seen, but I will probably never watch again. Fassbender’s performance is deserving of all the acclaim it’s gotten, and Mulligan is more than decent, as always. Beyond that, the many tertiary characters and slew of prostitutes are just sort of there. Brandon’s boss is oversimplified as the despicable pervert who is out to drink and fuck with reckless disregard of other people’s feelings, least of all his family’s. You can tell that Brandon hates him and above all, hates that he himself feels so much guilt while his boss is without remorse.

“Shame” is definitely worth watching and is available on HBO GO until June 30, 2013 or if you, ya know, buy it or something.