Today’s topic: sex addiction in film. A hard subject, difficult to get by certain audiences. A subject you want to look away from as soon as possible. Often visually disgusting, sickly portrayed, yet it’s an important subject matter that perhaps only cinema can deal with in a morbid way. For me, the best film about any addiction and in fact one of the best films ever made is Steve McQueen’s second feature, Shame.
Steve McQueen, the British filmmaker behind Hunger (2008) and the Oscar winning Best Picture of 2013, 12 Years a Slave, directed the gut wrenching Shame without holding any punches. Quite the opposite, he delivers them with brute force and somehow manages to leave us with bruised hearts, not flesh. Shame tells the simple day-to-day story of New Yorker Brandon (Fassbender, phenomenal) who lives an ordinary life by day but once night sets in, he reveals his true self: a sex addict. Brandon works as a businessman, rides the subway everyday and is the owner of a spacious apartment in the city. His story is the story of every man and woman who feel pain every time they wake up. It’s the story of people not able to look each other straight in the eye. It’s the story of loneliness crawling into our disconnected society. It’s the sizzling truth.
Sex addiction like any other kind of addiction, consumes the addict. It devours him and his whole life. It not only damages the person’s condition but the feelings too. In fact, Brandon has a sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who after a long time of silence storms into his life and turns everything upside down. In the mornings Brandon wakes up, urinates, has a healthy breakfast and goes to work. By night, he chases skirts; sometimes he takes a girl on a quick date, sometimes he pays. With Brandon it’s always classy – a nice restaurant, a luxurious hotel room and then all the problems are solved. Sometimes it can be rough, like on the side of the road, but Brandon is always the true gentleman who walks the girl home or accompanies her to the subway. He’s never had a long lasting relationship. Why? It’s too much for him, what’s the point of waking up to the same face for the rest of your life? What’s the point of coming home to the same smell? What’s the point of making love to the same body? It slows you down, it makes you lose focus, lose your condition, your habits, your dreams. That’s why when Brandon feels lonely, he hooks up with a girl who knows his needs over the internet. She knows what he likes, she knows his favorite position, his favorite style, she knows he likes to take it slowly. Slowly it is. But then Sissy comes into the picture.
Sissy is the fresh breeze. She’s the upcoming change. She’s the wind that rocks the trees. She rocks Brandon’s lifestyle. She’s the wake up call. She checks his laptop, uses his shower, has sex with his boss, takes up his time, constantly fights him and steals from him. She’s the lost sense of self respect that yells from the depths of loneliness: ” Remember me?! Please, do remember me! I’m here!”. That’s when Brandon starts to realize. Addiction turns into pain and awkwardness. He meets a beautiful girl; smart, funny, big eyes, subtle movements; she’s the one. He rents a room with a beautiful view of New York’s harbour. And that’s when it hits him. He can’t do it. He can’t “make love” this time. Why? Because this time it would really mean making love. Making love to someone who matters to you, making love to someone who either you can attract or scare away. It’s either gain or lose everything. Brandon shakes his head, and tries to do it, but he just can’t. It won’t connect. He’s helpless. It’s a defeat for a man who’s learned to ignore feelings. It’s a defeat for a man who’s only really good at sex. He pounds his fists in frustration and anger against the glass window. The girl leaves. He’s a prisoner who won’t accept his fate. He’s a soldier fighting a never ending war. The addiction sucks the juice out of him. The addiction’s winning.
Brandon goes jogging. Watch out for that sequence of him running across the busy streets of New York: you’ll learn more about the human condition and sense of existence from that tracking shot alone than from most of the movies that come out today. It’s a run of desperation, it’ a run in search of guidance. He runs and runs, and nothing can stop him. What can stop him is the answer he’s looking for. Not there yet. Brandon walks the streets at night, this time not on the hunt for a woman but a man. He kisses a stranger. The kiss of desperation. Desperation again. What will stop me? What will stop this everlasting thirst? What will it take to put me down on my knees?
His sister’s suicide attempt, that’s the answer. Only when Sissy slices her wrists in Brandon’s bathroom, does he realize that there is, in fact, a true meaning to life itself. Addiction doesn’t fulfill you, it doesn’t satisfy, it doesn’t shape you as a human being. It all depends from Brandon, the way he deals with his sister, the way he deals with love, the way he deals with his forgotten feelings. The feelings he once had as a boy. The passions he had when he carried a lunchbox to school. The dreams he had when he sat in the theater on opening night. It all comes back to him when his estranged sister’s on the edge of dying. She’s all he has.
And now, he’s awake. He can run.