Shame: Shame & sex but not a priest in sight…

Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan. 99 mins.
Rating: Four/Five
In cinemas January 13

Trust Steve McQueen, the King of Uncomfortable, to transform the punchline that is sex addiction – more commonly known as “what rich people call cheating”, or “Russell’s Brand’s specialist Mastermind topic” – into a one of the most fascinating, intense and harrowing addiction tales ever committed to film. Neither a rounded exploration nor cathartic explanation, the largely plot-free Shame isn’t really even a character study, more a deeply unnerving snapshot of a person whose addiction has reduced them to a lifeless shell.

Shame’s Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is not dissimilar to American Pyscho’s Patrick Bateman. The owner of an expensive minimalist apartment in Manhattan, the handsome professional is aware of his not inconsiderable charm – a skill demonstrated when he reduces a fellow train commuter to a squirming mess purely by eyeballing her, in an act of pure, unabashed eroticism.

But unlike Bateman, Brandon has a sense of shame about his consuming obsession – and he also has a kid sister. As his wild child sibling Sissy, Carey Mulligan shoves her breasts in the faces of critics who dared label her acting as safe. Desperate for attention, affection, physical touch and love, she becomes Brandon’s messy, emotional counterpoint, trampling all over his rigidly controlled routine. Unable to get his daily fix of prostitutes, online sex chat and uninterrupted masturbation, and uncomfortable with Sissy’s forced intimacy, Brandon’s polished façade begins to crack, exposing the violent, self-loathing intensity bubbling just beneath the surface.

Using the almost unbearably long shots that have become his trademark, aesthete McQueen uses the slick beauty of upper middle class Manhattan and a classical score to emphasize the cold, impersonal and ironically dull nature of Brandon’s repetitive and rewardless search for his next fix.

But nothing is more condemning than Fassbender’s deadened, joyless expression. Brandon never seems satisfied by his increasingly shocking sexual exploits, merely exhausted by the (ahem) constant grind of it all. If each orgasm is la petite mort, Brandon has died countless deaths, and it shows in his zombified stare.

An intense, brave and masterfully acted film that reveals the cavernous gap between desire and dependency, intercourse and intimacy, conquests and connection; and shows just how unsexy sex can be.