Sex is Auto Focus


01 December 2011| No Comments on Shame     by Sean Chavel


Fearless portrayal of a sex addict rated NC-17 (No children under 17 admitted). Shame, taking place in about a week’s time, has our afflicted hero unraveling as his routines accelerate to the point of job negligence, but worse, puts his life in danger. Michael Fassbender, in one of the best performances of the year, connotes the right notes of careless insatiability as Brandon, a good-looking professional always peering at his surroundings for sexual opportunity (even if it’s just with himself in the men’s room). He’s about to implode. He is too consumed in sex, which varies between pleasure and degradation, to care genuinely for Sissy (Carey Mulligan) his sister or for his colleagues and contemporaries. That is not because he is not capable of such emotions, but that he is too conditioned in his own cycle to see that his life has become unmanageable. If you connect to it, “Shame” is a traumatizing masterpiece that once you get over the trauma you will begin to do some major self-reflection on yourself.

Brandon’s typical indulgence is watching porn on his laptop while eating dinner. For a high time, he has rendezvous with a chain of call girls who are at his disposal, seemingly each one represents a specific perk for him (although we don’t know what they are, but we understand each type of girl has her function). Talking is not a prerequisite for Brandon, and yet he is not socially incompetent. His boss (James Badge Dale) behaves like a ringmaster at the nightclub pick-up scene, while Brandon leans back politely – yet he has the magnetism to pull in good-looking professional women.

Daily routine for Brandon is interrupted when Sissy arrives to town to crash at his place. He does his requirement to conceal the porn, as well as his comings and goings while his sister is a guest. But Sissy is naturally nosy and enmeshing with her brother, and stumbles upon hints of what her brother does. She reserves her criticism, and yet the resentment is omnipresent in every one of their scenes. It’s interesting how Brandon masquerades his shame with pitiless annoyance with Sissy.

Together they sit on the couch watching television. The actors’ heads are in-focus, the television screen is not. Brandon is so saturated by his debauched erotic life and fantasy life that what is on television is quickly boring to him. While he soaks in his frustration, he combs for the most insulting words he can to provoke his sister to leave the house for good.

The explicit final half hour is effectively numbing – it transforms erotica into sheer sickness as Brandon goes on an all-day sex marathon, running through multiple partners heedlessly. As an ultima sex addiction picture that delivers with honesty, as well as with a fine naturalism, one cannot deny that writer-director Steve McQueen has done a brilliant job (co-written with Abi Morgan). Brandon by the end at least stalls, stirring in remorse for his actions, but he has not admitted helplessness to his addiction. And so I think he will chase that girl off the subway. You may need a shower afterwards, but you know at least that you have seen a socially important film that doesn’t bargain for cheap answers.

99 Minutes. Rated NC-17.


Film Cousins: “Carnal Knowledge” (1971); “Crash” (1996); “Lies” (1999, South Korea); “Auto Focus” (2002).

Some men have the spot-on instinct to underplay or overplay a sexual come-on depending on the woman, the situation, the precognition of what the prelude should be in order to play her like an instrument. That perfectly encapsulates Brandon (Michael Fassbender), the magnetic subject of <em>Shame</em>, who knows how to predict a woman’s lustful urges. Downside, sexual come-ons and fornication and porn and bathroom jerk-offs and self-degradation are so around-the-clock for him that it has numbed his sense of connection to human feeling. Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) crashes at his pad against his wishes—it’s an intrusion on his privacy and he does have objects in his closet to hide and custom porn on his computer—and he’s quickly looking for ways to boot her out, even though Sissy has nowhere in the world to go if she does leave (I found it implied that she would be homeless). But Brandon, selfishly, would rather have his privacy back.

This is sex addiction uncompromisingly depicted and acted by Fassbender who is as cold as a chrome plated phallus. When he does go out on a date with office co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the dinner conversation is cordial yet planted with suggestion that things could get romantic; ultimately, he gets her into bed but cannot get turned on by somebody who is imbued with emotional feelings. One cut later, he is having sex with somebody who is completely disaffected. Having a prostitute is normal alleviation for him; each prostitute seems narrowed down to possessing a certain erogenous function that’s a perk to him.

Sex is auto focus. The explicit final twenty minutes is effectively numbing – it transforms erotica into sheer sickness as Brandon has gone on an all-day sex marathon, running through multiple partners heedlessly, putting himself into the throes of exhaustion and self-debasement. All of this delivered with honesty, as well as astute naturalism, for you cannot deny writer-director Steve McQueen has done a brilliant job (co-written with Abi Morgan). And Fassbender’s performance, as a man who comes to realize that he is hurting himself with nonstop compulsion, is ultimately the greatest performance I’ve ever seen for an NC-17 or X-rated film.

West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Malibu, the locations of where these rich kids live are all over the place, geographically. The important detail though is that these kids have too much at their disposal, have grown up too fast, and are skirting over the edge into debauched “adult” play. At the beginning, Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz are a couple until Robert Downey Jr. has come in-between and created a triangle. A falling out amongst all three is had, until they make-up the following Christmas season. Then this becomes a portrait of drug addiction of all of them, and more prevalently, rescuing Downey Jr. from heaps of debt and trouble. James Spader, applicably snotty, is the young depraved businessman out to exploit Downey Jr.

Barely a third into it I realize I find all these characters unlikeable. But a crucial question: Do I sympathize over them?

It’s not impossible to come into an understanding of who these misguided young people are. Though it is so dirty it’s unpleasant: Downey Jr. to pay off his $50K debt to Spader starts whoring himself to rich people. To cope, the cocaine and alcohol dosages get very, very dangerous, and escalate to the point he’s vomiting on stairwells. McCarthy and Getz have to intervene and, you know, care. What keeps us mainly interested is Downey Jr. barely his soul, going raw, in the portrait of his character Julian’s self-destruction. <em>Less Than Zero</em> rambles quite often, but it gets its teeth in you.

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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