Portrait of the Metrosexual as Sex Addict
Published on December 3rd, 2011 | by Halim Cillov0
Running time: 101 mins. Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content.
Steve McQueen’s second feature, “Shame,” following his politically charged art-house hit “Hunger,” is a bleak, moody and graphic character study of an emotionally suppressed sex addict and his soulless escapades in New York City. More than that, it is an insightful exploration of metropolitan apathy and sexual fluidity. At the center of the film is Brandon Sullivan (the ever brilliant Michael Fassbender), a Patrick Bateman-like aloof businessman, whose posh lifestyle is structured solely to cater to his sex addiction. Brandon’s maniacally organized and sheltered life gets complicated by the unexpected arrival of his carefree and bohemian sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). As Brandon desperately tries to keep the world at bay against all odds, when he is faced with the ultimate tragedy he is forced to confront the demons that he has been running away from all of his life. But is it too late for Brandon to burst out of his bubble?
While “Shame” is a sublime Freudian character study of a man incapable of any kind of emotional connection, it is more concerned with creating an acutely unsettling mood and atmosphere than with creating erotica. Thus, if you are hoping for a fast-paced, steamy and entertaining film chronicling the glamorous nightlife of New York, you are going to be immensely disappointed. After all, this is neither an uplifting nor a libidinous story. This is a mature, subtle and depressing portrait of sex addiction that concentrates on the loneliness and self-destruction that inevitably comes with the territory. However, by no means does this movie take a conservative approach to sex. On the contrary, it is a highly graphic and explicit film. Not only does the dashing actor Michael Fassbender give a thrilling performance as the cold and distant Brandon, but he is also fully and graciously exposed, hence the movie’s NC-17 rating.
In many ways, this movie can be read as a succinct commentary on the so-called modern metrosexual man, whose life is dedicated to chasing one hedonistic pleasure after the other. Throughout the movie the director-screenwriter deliberately leaves out various crucial details about Brandon’s past, making us reflect on the possible disturbing scenarios that turned Brandon into this black hole that doesn’t let any light pass through. Moreover, this lack of a detailed background story also turns Brandon into the epitome of the modern metrosexual who is liberated from all conventional norms and responsibilities. With his tailored designer clothes, stylishly decorated downtown apartment, and ripped physique, Brandon could easily be the poster boy for metrosexuality. As we delve into his life and his psyche, it becomes clear that he is the 21st-century dandy, the modern-day Dorian Gray, who sees everyone around him as nothing more than a disposable pleasure object.
Through Brandon, “Shame” exhibits a harrowing and true-to-life depiction of the metrosexual identity, a materialistic culture that revolves around mindless consumerism and emotional detachment. From a more literary perspective, this film is also an absorbing and layered depiction of an antihero’s metamorphosis. By avoiding close-ups and forgoing a background story for Brandon, McQueen deliberately prevents the audience from fully identifying with or sympathizing with Brandon. Most of the time, we see only the intimidating mask that Brandon is wearing for the world; we are never explicitly exposed to what is bottled up behind his suave appearance. He is the mystery of the film that we would like to solve. McQueen gives us clues, but he never spells anything out. Even at the end we are left with more questions than answers, more ambiguity than clarity. By concluding the film on an ambiguous note, in a profound and realistic manner, McQueen leaves it up to the viewer to decide how Brandon has metamorphosed and what he has metamorphosed into.
“Shame” offers a haunting and chilling cinematic experience that slowly captures you and doesn’t let you go for a while. The film’s dreary depiction of the life of a sex addict is the polar opposite of the way sex is usually depicted in the mainstream media, which wants you to believe that the more people you hook up with, the more desirable and successful you are. In “Shame,” even the sex scenes featuring the gorgeous Michael Fassbender are tainted with sorrow and sadness, giving the audience a disturbing jolt. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which it is encouraged for people to hide their narcissism and hedonism behind safe and fashionable labels like metrosexuality. Through TV Shows like “Jersey Shore” and pseudo-celebrities like Paris Hilton, every day we are brainwashed to worship promiscuity. When analyzed within that cultural context, “Shame” is an ambitious, timely and philosophical work of art that exhibits the dark side of our culture’s obsession with sex. The film’s slow pace, morose atmosphere and apathetic protagonist might put off some viewers, but for the art-house film buffs this is one of the most voluptuous celluloid treats of the year.