Yes, you get to see Michael Fassbender’s penis in this movie. And yes, it’s big. But full frontal male nudity can’t hide the religious aspect of this film. I know the guys who made the Narnia movies have an idea of what “religious” means. But they’re wrong. Shame is a true religious movie. And not because anyone in it espouses religion; not because anyone is (I shudder to even use the word) “saved”; but because this film is about being human, because it abides with shame. Those who know Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire will be hard pressed not to picture an angel sat beside Michael Fassbender as he rides the subway. Love might be totally absent from this man’s life, but that only makes his struggle more profound.
This is a movie about a sex addict. I’m not sure I sympathize with sex addicts any more than I sympathize with the millionaire who shouts, “Help! I’m so rich, my wallet is about to burst!” But once I got past my initial cynicism about the premise, I found I was able to feel concern for the man at the centre of the story. Brandon (as he’s called) is a handsome Irishman prowling the streets of New York. He hunts for sex constantly: in bars, on-line, at work. He doesn’t have any friends. His boss likes hang out with him because they both like to chase women. But Brandon doesn’t care for his boss. Actually, he doesn’t much care for anyone, not even his sister. Brandon is an addict. Like every addict, he wants oblivion.
What a magnificent bastard Michael Fassbender is (in this movie). Lean, wolfish, priapic. There’s a scene where he stands at the bar as his boss tries to pick-up a woman. All Fassbender has to do is give her a look. Minutes later they’re consummating that look in an alley. That’s how sexy he is. He is not good husband material. The one scene I didn’t credit is the one where he takes a work colleague on a date and she’s surprised he doesn’t believe in marriage. It’s like being surprised a rabbi is Jewish. Just look at him! There isn’t a trace of monogamy in his eyes. All you see is hunger. That’s the attraction. The film avoids accusations of misogyny because the women he chases are just like him. The script doesn’t condemn promiscuity. Shame isn’t a “moral” film in that sense. It’s about a man who feels condemned because he lives without joy.
Watch closely in the scene where Carey Mulligan sings “New York, New York”. It’s one of the few times you see Fassbender’s mask slip. All the bombast that Frank Sinatra brought to the song is stripped away. Instead, Mulligan sings with an aching vulnerability. She’s the equally damaged sister of the lead character; the one who’s like a mirror for all the wreckage that’s inside him. Whenever they’re on-screen together, there’s a powerful sense of sibling tug-o-war. He hates that she’s so honest about her needs: for love, for attachment, for family. But she won’t let go of him. Her every moment is spent trying to get his attention. His every moment is spent denying her. By the end, one of them wins. But it’s a pyrrhic victory.
This film has the opposite effect of pornography. Sex brings you closer to the protagonist’s inner-life. You’re not a mere voyeur. Like director Steve McQueen’s previous film, Hunger, a man’s body is used to express the central theme. But where Hunger was about the futility of violence, Shame isn’t about the futility of sex. It’s about a man who has sex the way an alcoholic drinks; a man who uses sex to nurse his shame. He feels worthless, so he sleeps around. If he was a teenage girl, you’d recognise the cause of his behaviour right away. But this explanation only describes the surface of things. Shame isn’t about low self-esteem. As in any true meditation on religious themes, there is no nice neat answer to suffering.
In Wings of Desire, there’s a scene where a man commits suicide, even though an angel sits beside him. You could look on that man as doomed, or as someone who makes the wrong choice, but the film doesn’t ask you to judge his actions. It isn’t pious. It wants you to empathize. In Shame, the point is not that Michael Fassbender is going to change; the point is that he’s in pain. The likelihood is that he will stay that way. For me, the religious aspect of this film lies in its sincerity. There is no “issue” being explored here, no ulterior motive urging this man to be chaste. There’s just the mess of his life – his humanity – for us to share. Shame is religious because it grants a sex addict a measure of grace.