Fassbender as Brandon just before he goes on a desperate sex binge.

I delayed seeing the movie “Shame” because I thought it would be a horribly depressing and uncomfortable spectacle to witness. I was right.

Having never left a theatre before the end of a movie (at least in the last 10 years), I nearly did this time, but I got so far as the concession, bought popcorn and forced myself to go back. This is a quietly stark and extremely dark portrait of siblings each struggling with their inner demons in their own destructive way. What those demons are, the audience is not privy to because there are only hints, no big reveal.

My discomfort was more around the way the point of the film was “hammered” (excuse the sexual innuendo here) home so thoroughly and completely. Talk about hitting you over the head with an idea. Okay, so we get it. These two are both so filled with self-loathing that they can’t have normal relationships. And one of those manifestations is blatantly sexual, the other more carelessly so. But both seem hell-bent on self-destruction in their own way.

Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Brandon Sullivan, a seemingly confident and successful New Yorker, is all about his face. He’s not been given a whole lot to say in this screenplay. It’s his face that must tell the story. From the burning intensity of his stare at a flirtatious married woman on the subway, to his teary-eyed witnessing of his sister’s sultry vocal performance at a piano bar, all the way through to his wild pursuit of his next sexual conquest through nightclubs, gay bars and finally, to the apartment where a pair of hookers lazily welcome him (and his wallet). And that was all in one night! (No wonder he is perpetually late for work!)

Carey Mulligan, as Sullivan’s sister Sissy is a real relief against Fassbender’s intense performance. He is so controlled with his jaw muscle twitching and his taut buttocks flashing across the screen (admittedly, not too difficult to watch) and Mulligan is so, well, messy. Even her smile seems a little lop-sided when she sings, and her clothing is a mismatch of vintage hats and clumsy teenaged innocence. Even naked, she appears to be so human and normal that it’s tough not to feel sympathetic (not the perfectly perky body, her dime-store hair dyed roots glaringly obvious). She is the perfect foil for her brother, who tries to appear that he’s got it altogether. She makes no such attempt, begging her boyfriend not to break up with her and drunkenly bedding Brandon’s married boss.

Clearly, his sister’s presence in his life serves as a reminder to him about whatever his dark secret is and when Sissy shows up, he goes on a sexual bender. It turns out that the timing couldn’t have been worse since Sissy also decides to take matters into her own hands and they aren’t there for each other when they need rescuing.

What’s intriguing about this film is how sex may allow someone to become thoroughly disconnected from reality. We understand this with other substances like drugs and alcohol but this story explores how a sex addiction can do the same. There has been a lot of snickering about the movie and in general, about the idea of sex addiction. Some people question whether it is truly an addiction. I have no doubt that some people (ie. celebrities) falsely claim to have a sex addiction, perhaps to make themselves appear more dark and mysterious or just for publicity, but I also think this movie explains what that sex addiction looks like in a real person. And it’s not pretty.

It’s also a tremendous hindrance to having a normal relationship, as Brandon discovers when he develops a rapport with a woman in his office and tries to have “normal” sex (whatever that means). It would be like asking an alcoholic to have just one drink at a social gathering. He knows he can’t do it and in order to spare himself the embarrassment or perhaps spare the woman the trauma (again, his facial expressions during sex are like something out of the Exorcist), he decides not (or is unable) to go through with it. Then, he promptly produces his credit card and pays for it with a willing prostitute.

Don’t expect the sex in this flick to be titillating. Most of it occurs without the benefit of even a mood-inducing soundtrack to break the silence. I think I was holding my breath through most of the movie and the theatre was so hushed it added to the weirdness of the whole experience. Definitely NOT a date movie, by the way!

Do yourself a favour, skip this movie unless you are a real film buff and want to say that you “survived” it. If you know someone with a sex addiction, you might find it an interesting character study, I guess, or you might find it even that much harder to watch, if that’s the case.

Now I need to tune into some lighter fare (just about anything would be lighter than this one) to help me get this movie out of my head. Heavy, heavy sigh.


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