There’s no doubt that Shame is a bold, captivating portrait of a sex addict’s life in New York. The visual style is stunning, Michael Fassbender’s performance – bizarrely unrecognized by the Academy – is mesmerising, and the film really captures the essence of New York onscreen. But its portrayal of women is less than flattering, and this is worth noting. Yes, the focus is on the character of Brandon and his addiction, so we are meant to sympathise with him and see women through his eyes. Fair enough. And Brandon’s no misogynist – he’s certainly the good guy when contrasted with his lecherous married boss. Still, does a film about a man’s sex addiction have to keep female perspectives so muted to tell its story? I think in 2012 we could do a bit better.
You’ve got to admit it’s an awkward one for heterosexual women watching the film, for whom Brandon is a real-life nightmare. Brandon seems like such a catch; an attractive and considerate man, however, he finds open communication difficult, is intensely emotionally unavailable and has a voracious sexual appetite (albeit to a pathological degree). Any ladies out there, hands up if you’ve been with such a man? The memories aren’t pleasant, I’m sure. Women who’ve had such experiences learn to go into defensive mode around men like Brandon, but the film skilfully forces its audience to put their guards down. Nevertheless, the result happens to be those women feeling male domination all over again.
Of course the film needs to include women who fulfil Brandon’s desires – but there are two key female characters who provide important counterpoints to this, women in his world whose voices he actually hears: his colleague Marianne (Nicole Beharie) and more crucially, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Yet the contrast between these two and all the other women is simply not strong enough to make a difference; not enough to un-mute women in his story.
It’s unfortunate that our introduction to Marianne is sexualised early on when Brandon fantasises about her naked while checking her out at the office; from that point on, we already know that their fledgling relationship is likely to be doomed. During their one and only date Marianne establishes herself as a smart, sensitive girl who doesn’t automatically swoon in Brandon’s presence. However in the aborted sex scene which follows, the camera is statically dispassionate, automatically prioritizing Fassbender (because we know him better) and denying us access to Marianne’s feelings while she struggles to get close to him. Sure, Brandon’s breakdown feels remote but Marianne’s reaction manages to be even more obscured. At this crucial moment, she seems more like a plot device exposing Brandon’s frailties rather than a living, breathing woman.
Sissy’s voice could have added greater balance to an uneven film, yet she is also reduced to functioning as a narrative mechanism rather than a full character. As with Marianne, the film introduces her to us in a way that undercuts her; we first hear Sissy on Brandon’s answerphone, and it’s left ambiguous whether she’s another of his female conquests or someone more substantial. It’s a provocative choice but it also throws her character under the bus – she’s initially presented as an unhinged sexual threat to Brandon so explicitly that it’s difficult to see her side of the story without prejudice.
When Brandon bursts into the bathroom because he thinks Sissy’s an intruder, she doesn’t cover herself up. If Sissy had been a bit less brazen, covering herself up partially yet still enough to make Brandon uncomfortable, we might care about her a bit more. I mean, what sister stands unabashedly stark naked in front of her brother? Is Shame an issue film about a sex addict or about incest? Enigmatic obfuscation is one thing; manipulative red herrings are another entirely.
Also, she’s wearing a hospital bracelet, but this is never addressed – in fact, most audience members probably missed it, seeing as there was no close-up or dialogue about it. Again, here’s a missed opportunity to give Sissy more of a voice, instead of marginalizing her as just a projection of Brandon’s. Did she have an operation? Attempt suicide? So did Brandon never visit her at the hospital meaning she had to come to him?
We next hear her on the phone, desperately professing her love to someone leaving her, though by this (still early) point of the film the damage to her character’s been done. That scene’s not quite enough for us to accept that she’s the inverse of Brandon and have equal sympathy for her. Even her big moment – a bar blues rendition of ‘New York, New York’ – is ultimately upstaged by Brandon and his maudlin release of a single tear. Sissy, like her brother, is love-starved but emotional and expressive rather than cold and silent; however, the way she’s presented in the film, we are pushed to favour Brandon’s control and detachment over her messiness and vulnerability.
In the end, despite Carey Mulligan’s committed performance, Sissy, like Marianne, is more catalyst than character. She mainly serves to expose and challenge Brandon while acting as a foil – she’s addicted to attention/affection rather than carnal pleasure. Thus her self-destruction isn’t in itself important, because it simply sparks Brandon’s self-destruction (if indeed we are to view Shame as a message film about sex addiction). It’s a bit of a pity, really. Remember Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd in another New York film about emotional and psychological dislocation? They could have been mere dressing on the window of Travis Bickle’s mind, yet Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader made it clear that these three-dimensional women existed outside their warped protagonist’s jaundiced perspective. In my humble opinion, Shame’s idolatry of Brandon keeps it just short of being a fully accessible and truly brilliant film.