What a Shame: taking sex addiction at face value

Steve McQueen’s latest film offers an unconvincing portrayal of a promiscuous yuppie at the mercy of his sexual urges.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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With celebrities ranging from Russell Brand to Tiger Woods claiming to be slaves to their carnal desires, sex addiction has made its way into the public consciousness. However, the validity of the condition is still very much disputed. Indeed, the labelling of promiscuity as a disorder seems like little more than a convenient means for celebrities to distance themselves from their depraved antics. It betrays a highly puritanical impulse to realign us with conservative notions of sexuality.

Hunger, Steve McQueen’s acclaimed debut about Bobby Sands and the 1981 IRA hunger strikes, approached a very contentious historical event with sober, apolitical portraiture. Yet in the opening scenes of his latest film, Shame, McQueen provides us with a very one-sided view of the sex addiction debate. We are introduced to Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a New York yuppie leading a double life. By day, he is just one of the guys (save the occasional unseemly visit to the men’s room), but by night he becomes an uncontrollable fiend, looking for sex wherever he can find it.

Brandon’s busy schedule of brothel visits, one-night stands and violent sessions of masturbation, is upset by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who, having landed a singing gig in New York City, needs somewhere to stay. She seems to serve as an uncomfortable reminder of their troubled childhood, which is hinted at but never explained. As a result, Brandon rejects her attempts to reconnect with him and casts her out. In this, McQueen attempts to explore the causes of Brandon’s errant behaviour, suggesting that a history of family turmoil has left him with little faith in emotional intimacy and forged the basis for his addiction.

However, despite McQueen’s penchant for naturalism, Brandon’s story is far from convincing. Not only does he seem to have an almost supernatural ability to attract beautiful women, but the scenes of violent masturbation and rampant sexual conquest are terribly cartoonish. For instance, during Brandon’s final spree, he partakes in a series of stereotypically debauched antics, beginning with lewdly chatting up women in bars, before heading to a gay sex club and rounding off the evening with a threesome in a brothel.

If anything, this less-than-sophisticated presentation of the supposed ‘realities’ of sex addiction leads one to think it isn’t about sex at all. All of his encounters seem pleasurable and consensual, if occasionally contractual, and if McQueen intends to underline their innate depravity he certainly doesn’t succeed. Brandon’s tendencies are admittedly a little self-destructive, but his true struggle seems to lie in his isolation and emotional separation from his family, rather than his sexual appetites.

Towards the end of the film, Brandon begins to see a colleague, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), and their first date is perhaps Shame’s most important scene, largely because it undermines all that has come before it. As they begin to talk about past relationships, Brandon is led to admit that he doesn’t believe in monogamy, or feel comfortable with long-term commitment. Marianne challenges him on it and they debate for the rest of the evening. Breaking from the narrative’s overarching agenda, this seems to be the sort of discussion the film should have staged in the first place; one that examines our culture’s sexual values without feeling the need to wag fingers.

While Shame aspires to paint a vivid picture of a person living through the supposed affliction of sex addiction, the result is a rather unconvincing caricature. Nevertheless, in its failure to depict sex addiction as anything other than a matter of appetite and sensibility, it may well have something important to say.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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