Steve McQueen’s film, Shame, deals with the topic of sex addiction. I must admit I’ve always been skeptical about whether such a condition actually exists. However, I suppose if a person can become addicted to gambling, then it’s possible for someone to be addicted to sex.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is an executive at a company in New York. He engages in casual sex with prostitutes and women he meets in bars. He downloads pornography from the Internet. He even masturbates in the john at work. He seems incapable of having sex unless it’s impersonal. When, for example, he begins seeing a woman who works in his office, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), he ends up rejecting her.

Brandon’s life gets complicated when his emotionally unstable sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), suddenly moves into his apartment with him. The film implies that they had a traumatic experience in their childhoods, although we are never told what it was. When Sissy has sex with Brandon’s boss, David (James Badge Dale), Brandon becomes angry with her. Brandon seems to have a madonna/whore complex, which is no doubt related to his obsessive attitude towards sex and to his inability to have a relationship.

Fassbender gives a powerful performance. With his looks and gestures, he’s able to suggest complicated thoughts and emotions going on inside his character’s head. Shame contains graphic sex scenes; McQueen apparently wanted to make clear the joylessness of Brandon’s approach to sex. This film’s ending does not offer any redemption for Brandon. He seems trapped in his behavior. This is an interesting, if somewhat bleak, character study.

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