On one level, Shame is about sex addiction, though we never see Brandon (Michael Fassbender) having sex in a bed with a woman who isn't a prostitute. His more typical m.o. is porn on his laptop and wanking in the office bathroom at the Wall Street firm where he works. He's charming and good-looking and has no problems around women, but sex for him is a compulsion rather than an interaction, or even an enjoyable experience. We watch him pick up a beautiful woman at a bar without even trying -- much to the chagrin of his more typically horny boss (James Badge Dale) -- but then they go off and do it under a bridge.
On another level, Shame is about Brandon's relationship with his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Brandon ignores her pleading phone calls, until finally she just shows up at his small, spare Manhattan apartment (along with his job, the only sign that he is a functional human being) and asks to stay. This is his worst nightmare, but he can't say no. They share an affectionate moment while waiting for the subway -- she tweaks him about lint on his coat; he picks it off and puts it on hers -- but it is brief and fleeting. Brandon won't communicate, and he brutally lashes out. She tries in vain to get through to him, a task that takes on increased urgency as the film proceeds. Near the end they have a single-take conversation so brutal and emotionally raw that it nearly made me keel over from the adrenaline shooting through my body. For Sissy, it's like banging against a brick wall that also hits back.
Finally and more fundamentally, Shame is about a man so filled with self-loathing that honest communication with others -- never mind any kind of relationship -- is an impossibility. He might as easily sprout wings and fly. He can't share any part of himself with anyone, romantically or otherwise, because he finds himself disgusting. His urges, compulsions and predilections make him want to vomit. You are hereby invited to imagine what it is like to live this way.
Shame is harsh and difficult to watch, as it must be. It puts Brandon's living hell front and center and never looks away. Fassbender's performance is an instant legend. Brandon says not a single expository thing, beyond at one point revealing that he was born in Ireland and moved to the States as a teen. Everything else that comes out of his mouth -- and it isn't much -- is a lie or a front. Fassbender reveals Brandon's truth entirely without dialogue. It is, appropriately enough, a performance difficult to describe in words.
The film was directed by Steve McQueen, whose feature debut Hunger, also starring Fassbender, rocketed him to the top of the highbrow A-list three years ago. I didn't like Hunger, which stubbornly kept itself at an emotional remove from the audience, and played like art film posturing. With Shame, McQueen has done a 180, plunging us so deeply and wholly into his protagonist's turmoil and despair that it becomes almost unwatchable.
McQueen and his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, shoot in lovely, unshowy long takes, getting out of the way and letting us and the actors get cozy with the characters. They regard conversations and silent angst as unflinchingly as they do the sexually explicit material (which is plentiful; an NC-17 rating is assured if the film is even submitted to the MPAA). Manhattan looks desolate and sad here, as it surely would to Brandon. Carey Mulligan and Nicole Behaire, the latter playing the target of Brandon's ill-fated attempt to go on an actual date, are effortlessly real in key supporting roles. Like Fassbender, they are able to suggest a wealth of background that goes unspoken.
Shame's reception among the Telluride audience has been polarized. One woman told me that it is one of the worst movies she had ever seen it. It's "not for everyone," in the irritating sense of the phrase that means it's not for people who think movies shouldn't be difficult or distressing. Do with that information what you will, but miss Shame at your peril. It is astonishing.