Please don’t read this post if reading about or seeing videos of sexual addiction triggers you.
I went to a screening of Shame yesterday, the NC-17 film with Michael Fassbender about the trials of a sex addict in New York. I’m going to talk about it here in terms of its portrayal of an addictive behavior—not from the point of view of filmmaking. There are countless reviews of the movie if you’re interested in how the critics feel about it. But I want to assess it in terms of the character’s mental state.
If you’re not sure what sexual addiction is, there’s a nice review of it at Psych Central. It’s also possible that Hypersexual Disorder may be included in the DSM 5 (incidentally, why are we ditching the Roman numerals for this DSM? Just curious). But sexual addiction has been the subject of 12-step groups for many years. It may be new to the psychiatric community’s bible, but it’s certainly not new to anyone who’s struggled with it.
Before I talk any further about the film, I want to caution, again, that what I’m going to talking about may trigger individuals with sexual compulsivity. And I’ll also be embedding videos. A similar caution should be provided at the beginning of the film. It is a super-triggery film. After I saw it, I was ready to go out and have self-destructive sex myself, but then I had to go to CVS, so I skipped it.
The film’s protagonist is a man named Brandon who is an unhappy sex addict. He indulges in all manner of sexual stimulation, from magazine porn and webcam sessions to prostitutes and anonymous hookups in an alleyway. He’s a compulsive masturbator and online porn hoarder. It’s what consumes much of his time, money and thought. We know this because it’s all we know. Brandon is hardly a character other than these facts; he’s simply a body acting out an addiction. Critics have complained about this, and fairly, I think; after all, it’s hard to care about your (anti)hero if all you know of him is this unappealing compulsivity. But in terms of a portrayal of an addict, it’s perfect. Brandon is utterly consumed by his addiction. If there isn’t anyone else in there, it’s because that’s how he wants it. The more in thrall he is to the compulsions, the less he has to confront his true self. That’s a hallmark of addiction, and while it might not make for a completely knowable character for a general audience, addicts will know exactly why Brandon is a null set.
The flashes of humanity in Brandon reveal why the addiction must consume him. He has a relationship with a sister who doesn’t understand boundaries. She’s raw, overly physical and needy. He feels trapped by her and protects himself from it by pulling away. He pushes his emotions about her down because they’re too troubling. There’s an erotic subtext to their relationship that’s uncomfortable and that makes Brandon defensive and angry. He hates himself for his cruelty to her, and wants to obliterate his hurt, his anger, his fragility. There is a veiled reference to a bad childhood. We don’t know what it was, but it must’ve been a doozy. He’s pushing that stuff down as well. All the sex is shimmer and distraction for someone who, if he let the emotions come out, would be undone by them. So he has to keep going.
All of that is superbly wrought and realistic. The other aspect of Brandon’s addiction that is very well-executed is the degree of hiding that goes along with being an addict. No one knows the “real” him, which during the addiction is the addict. At work, he’s rigid and uncomfortable; with prostitutes, he’s comfortable and easy. You can read it in his posture, his face. There’s the public self and the addict self. A small detail: In a meeting at work, he’s listening to a presentation and the speaker says, “I find you disgusting … ” It’s part of the speech, but Brandon hears it as though it’s directed toward him. This is also very realistic. When you’re engaging in secret behavior, and you’re a hidden person, you hear messages like that embedded all around because you’re terrified someone will find you out. Regarding the workplace, it seems like an ad agency, but it isn’t clear. This has also been mentioned by critics as a flaw. Again, though, it fits with the addiction. The work doesn’t matter to Brandon. It’s just his cover. The porn on his work computer is who he really is.
I found it interesting that Brandon chose the music of Glenn Gould to listen to. Another obsessive, but one who was far less successful at hiding his compulsions and quirks. What does it mean to Brandon to share space in this way with Gould?
Overall, the sense of Brandon being hidden—from himself, from everyone else—is finely rendered and is most important to the accuracy of the portrayal. The fact that he’s largely hidden from the viewer makes the film problematic, though. The one time when he’s on a date, it’s so lovely to see him talk and smile like a real human being. It brings fresh air into the movie. But there’s very little of that, perhaps to emphasize the isolation of the addiction. The question is: How fun is it to watch a dark, torturous addiction played out on-screen?
You should also know that the sex is extremely explicit and there’s full-frontal nudity. I guess I must be desensitized because it didn’t have much of an impact on me. In this culture, it’s hard for anything to be especially shocking. The one thing that did shock me was a very negative portrayal of gay sex, which was treated as though it was the lowest possible circle of hell one could descend to. I get the feeling the director, Steve McQueen, has some issues there.
I think all addicts can understand the strong desire to run away from yourself, to obliterate the pain. But it’s a brutal struggle, and I think with sex addiction, it can be particularly shameful—hence the film’s title. Despite some moments that overdramatize the shame fairly ridiculously, the way the addiction is represented will be familiar to anyone who’s ever engaged in that struggle.
Shame opens in Philadelphia on Friday, Dec. 9.