The concept of clinical sex addiction is a relatively new and often mocked one. It's mostly treated as a lame excuse used by embarrassed fallen heroes like Tiger Woods to explain their wandering eyes (and other parts). It's a cop out, a dodge -- wouldn't we all be "addicted" to sex if it was so readily available? It seems silly, exaggerated, like someone saying they're addicted to chocolate or roller coasters or anything else fun that most normal people enjoy. Addicted to sex?? Yeah, welcome to the human race.
But, of course, the reality is that for the term to have become as widely known and used as it is today, there has to be some hard, unpleasant truth to it. To that end, we've heard some sobering, honest accounts of the real-life horror of the affliction, and now we have the struggle sympathetically but fictionally depicted in the harrowing new picture Shame, a dark and dizzying, yet oddly glancing, look at a man, an otherwise ideal man, done in by an all-consuming libido.
Shame is directed by the British video artist Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen), marking his second feature film, after Hunger, 2008's brutal look at the 1981 Irish hunger strike. In that film, McQueen showed an interest in turning the mundane and routine -- there are long, unbroken shots of people cleaning, of people sitting, of hallways standing still and quiet -- into something more unsettlingly profound. He found not just the devil in the details, but a great and towering and terrifying balrog, something operatic. Hunger is in no way a narratively traditional movie, it's more a collection of startling visuals (with one grand 20-minute single take of dialogue in the middle) that describe a happening. It feels a bit documentarian; the quiet presence of the camera is almost felt in the scene. McQueen is a watcher, and show-er, not a teller.
He brings that same curious and visually probing lens to Shame, but here of course the matter he is investigating is more active than wasting away in a prison cell. There's a hunt to it, there's predation. So McQueen's camera must move along with it, we are following someone down a dark hole, scared, but too intrigued to turn back. The ailing man we are following is played by Hunger's Michael Fassbender, a fast-rising Irish-German actor who here shows the same level of kamikaze commitment he brought to that earlier film. Fassbender plays Brandon, a hotshot marketing whiz (well, his profession is left deliberately vague, but there are pitches to be made and everyone dresses in business casual) who lives in a sleek Midtown Manhattan high-rise ideal for any bespoke young bachelor. His should seem like a rather charmed life, but we know from the get-go that there is something amiss.
The film opens with an elliptical series of shots that keep looping back on themselves: We see Fassbender ignoring a voice message from a pleading woman while he pads, fully nude, to the bathroom. We see him riding a dark and rumbling subway car (McQueen gives the MTA the same outskirts-of-hell treatment it was given in Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan) while wordlessly coming on to a woman sitting across from him; she goes from demure to interested, but just as the moment becomes something potentially real rather than merely suggested, as they both stand up to leave the train to head off to some sort of implied tryst, she closes in again, leaves Brandon chasing after her in vain in the crowded station. And we see him, in this same swirling segment, inviting a call girl into his apartment. What's immediately striking about this triptych -- the nude lone figure, the subway seduction, the dull transaction -- is how decidedly unsexy the whole thing is. We are not watching the familiar heat and tingle of lust and anticipation. This is simply a man in the process of getting his fix -- we could see this segment with liquor or drugs and, while less exotic, it would have the same chemical urgency.
So Brandon is, though the term is never said in this deliberately indirect movie, a pretty raging sex addict. It's evident in his rabid consumption of internet porn, in his caginess with colleagues (particularly his sorta sleazy boss and lady-hunting wingman, played by James Badge Dale) and with his sister, a dyed-blonde smear of a creature played with loose-limbed ache by Carey Mulligan. Brandon and his sister, Sissy, have a strange relationship; Mulligan's opening scene is her standing nude in Brandon's bathroom while they have a frantic conversation. So clearly there is something of a blurry sexual boundary between the two of them, and while we never get specifics (again, this movie intentionally withholds a lot), it's evident that they suffered some familial trauma in the past. "We're not bad people, we just came from a bad place," Sissy says to her brother in one despairing scene. Sissy's arms are riddled with cutting scars, so she too seems to be contending with demons of obsession. Sissy needs a place to crash for a while, so she shacks up on Brandon's couch, interfering with her brother's constant pursuit of gratification.
Like in Hunger, McQueen here uses a few big set-pieces to punctuate the movie, to varying success. A scene where Sissy, a nightclub singer of some sort, does a sad, blue rendition of "New York New York," bringing a tear -- of what? regret? -- to Brandon's eye (and a tent to his boss's pants) is both lovely and bitterly sad. Mulligan is a prettily trembling little songbird, and Fassbender, with his palely harsh teutonic features, is an effective single-tear dripper. The strongest vignettes (if we can call them that) in the movie are a pair of date scenes, as Brandon asks out a comely young woman who works at his office (Nicole Beharie, terrific) and they have an awkward-yet-flirty dinner together and then, later, well... Let's just say that date number two is less successful. These scenes do the necessary work of illustrating how only surfacely functional Brandon is as a member of polite society, he is filled at this point with so much of his disease's stuff that it's a strenuous, almost performative, act to simply go on a date with a charming, attractive woman. He is not, after all, after romance. His addiction is not about the pleasure of coupling, it is a hunger (oh!) for physical and mental release.
Another of McQueen's set pieces, one used to show us the raw madness of Brandon's need, is an Inferno-esque wander into an underground gay sex club. Harry Escott's deep, swelling score cries doom while Brandon walks through the red-lit club and, well, it doesn't sit that well to have a gay male hookup be telegraphed as the height of desperate moral depravity. But really, I guess, the message here is that the person with the orifice is beside the point. The movie's many graphic sex scenes (the movie earned an NC-17 rating) are mechanical; they're so focused on satisfying a singular need that Brandon may as well be screwing plants or animals. The palpable sense of mental anguish to Brandon's copulating trumps any of sex's innate intimacy. Brandon tries to be a nice regular guy, offering his hookers a drink and the like, but really these people are simply vessels for him to fill with his own emptiness.
Which is why he is so confounded by his prodding, intruding sister, someone who plays such a frustratingly separate role in his strictly compartmentalized life. McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan let the Mulligan storyline get a bit grandiose toward the end, but as a way to spur a bit of action into the story, beyond all the bedroom action that is, it's as good enough a device as any. And, as always, Mulligan is winsome and at-ease and wholly effecting. And Fassbender, with that O-face that looks like dying, is a scary marvel. His deep dive into the role doesn't come off as overly intense showmanship or like some stunt act. He clearly trusts the material and his director and so simply does the things, all the naked things, he must do to get the movie made the way it's supposed to be made. He's a workman artiste, a pragmatic British actor-type without the stiff reserve.
Unfortunately for him, I'm just not sure the movie as a whole lives up to the work he's put in. McQueen is a stunning visualist to be sure -- he and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt create dozens of hauntingly indelible images -- but as a storyteller, or even as a describer, his insistence on vagueness and suggestion does him no service. With all the turgid (though lovely), keening music and heavy, looming photography, it feels as though we are ultimately to take nothing from this movie but a sense of awfulness. Obviously there need not be a tidy resolution here, a sense of grim ambiguity works fine, but the film's deliberate skirting of identifying anything in particular, its avoidance of naming anything, saps its potency. It's a thesis -- sex addiction is a terrible and devouring thing -- simply proven over and over again. It's as awful at the end as it is at the beginning. The movie is one big, thick, heavy line that goes straight across and does not waver. The film is beautiful, and beautifully acted, but like so many visually arresting but ultimately strangely shallow indies before it, Shame eschews specifics to its own detriment. It's a great first therapy session, but we're still miles away from the root of the problem.
Hey, while we're on the topic of sex, why don't we talk about the menacingly peculiar brothel where Emily Browning's character goes to work in Sleeping Beauty, Australian novelist-turned-filmmaker Julia Leigh's new art-house feature. Browning, all grown up from Lemony Snicket, plays Lucy, a beautiful university student who spends most of her time working dead-end jobs: making copies for a chilly businesswoman, acting as a guinea pig for medical testing (a long tube is stuck down her throat for unknown purposes), wiping down restaurant tables, and picking up tricks at a swanky bar. Oh, yeah, Lucy moonlights as a prostitute, though between all those gigs she's still unable to cover her rent, much to the displeasure of her roommates. So it's an exciting, if slightly unnerving, opportunity that comes her way when she's hired to work for a mysterious woman named Clara (a crystalline Rachael Blake) and is told she'll be serving silver-service dinners to wealthy people. The pay is good, so long as she's extremely discreet. Sounds all well and good, until Clara tells her "Your vagina will not be penetrated." Ah, one of those kinds of fancy dinners.
So Lucy embarks on her new career. While her coworkers parade around the refined dinners with breasts exposed, Lucy (known now as Sarah) stays covered up in a bra and garters. The dinner guests are mostly rich old white men, decorous people who pretend to barely notice all the T&A pouring their wine and serving their gourmet food. This is strange but easy money; Lucy is hooked.
Of course things get stranger, but I don't think I'll tell you just how strange. Just know that the title quickly makes sense and that Browning spends a large portion of this aggressively odd and unpleasant movie in the vulnerable nude. Leigh seems concerned with telling a tale of sexual passivity and the dark parts of desire, familiar territory for sure, but here covered with a storybook, yes almost fairytale, dreamlike quality. Death plays a heavy thematic role here too, as Lucy is caring for an ailing and suicidal friend and... Oh, I can't tell you any more! The film would lose all its weight, of which there is little, if I told you anything else.
That spoiler-aversion, though, is not necessarily meant as an enticement to see the film. While Browning glows with ghostly ethereal beauty and the film is gorgeously shot, Sleeping Beauty suffers from the same cop-out ambiguity as Shame. It is simply not enough to set up creepy or pruriently interesting scenarios and then figure your work done. If, for example, a movie like Caché, Michael Haneke's brilliant 2005 head-scratcher, can manage to pull off ominous uncertainty with such chilling aplomb, then other movies can too. It is simply a matter of streamlining ideas -- simply put, figuring out what your movie is about. Is Sleeping Beauty a cautionary tale for sexually adventurous women? An indictment of the sex drives of old men? A story about sleep as death and vice versa? All of those themes are in there, and yet when the movie reaches its clipped, too-soon ending, all are just as murky and undeveloped as they were when the film began. This is a frustrating trend, this music video approach to moviemaking. Not every picture has to be a basically structured narrative, obviously not, but good grief can someone throw us something we can hold onto?
As an art film, as something that might screen in a museum, Sleeping Beauty certainly has its aesthetic merits. But it is hardly intellectually engaging and is also strangely a bit sneering. Its opaqueness feels deliberate, cruel. Though I don't think this was the filmmakers' intent, I was left feeling a bit accused and insulted -- we're pervs for being basely titillated, we're fools for trying to glean something that wasn't there. That's a sentiment not unlike the one found in Haneke's brutal Funny Games films (both the Austrian and American versions). Though with those, that's the intended statement. With Sleeping Beauty, that alienation seems like a byproduct of the film's unfortunate inward-facing awe. It's a lovely object, I just wish it would stop admiring itself.