Why aren’t there more movies about sexual addiction?
Possibly because it sounds like sort of a self-defeating topic for a film. Those in the mood for a “sex” film generally don’t want to see it paired with a downer word like “addiction” and those seeking an addiction film are perhaps more drawn to tangible, physical addictions such as to booze (Leaving Las Vegas), drugs (Trainspotting) or anything not nailed down (the inevitable Winning! The Charlie Sheen Story). Also, as addictions go, it’s probably among the most difficult to garner sympathy for. I mean, let’s face it, no matter how much sex Michael Douglas is having with Catherine Zeta-Jones or anyone else, is anyone genuinely concerned that he’s having too much?
And so, with the release Shame, the genre practically doubles in size. Already a multiple winner at the Venice Film Festival for director Steve McQueen and lead actor Michael Fassbender, and a possible Oscar nominee in several categories, it’s up to us to see if it’s worth the hype by facing it off with… well, pretty much the only other film we’re aware of on this topic, Caveh Zahedi’s serio-comic, sort-of documentary I Am A Sex Addict (2005). Get ready for one sexy Smackdown….
Manhattan thirty-something Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) likes sex. Quite a lot. Whether it’s alleyway quickies with bar pick-ups, pricey sessions with one or more prostitutes, silently eye-fucking a comely stranger on the subway, or cramming his computers with internet porn (both at home and the office, among unsuspecting co-workers), the guy is just really, really freaky. Like, even more than most guys. And because he makes a good living and looks like Michael Fassbender, he doesn’t have a difficult time finding ways to feed the beast.
Then his estranged, irresponsible younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) barges back into his life and moves in with him, immediately falls into bed with his sleazy, married boss, David (James Badge Dale), walks in on Brandon at unfortunate moments and generally disrupts his rhythm. He finds brief distraction with sweet and alluring co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), but he’s just not the romance type. Will he ever get the monkey off his back? And despite the film’s self-conscious title, is it clear that he even wants to?
Moments before his third wedding, I Am a Sex Addict’s dweeby filmmaker Caveh Zahedi looks right into the camera, straightens his bow tie and begins to tell us a story. Via recreations in which he plays himself (regardless of age), he chronicles how his obsession with prostitutes wrecked his previous marriages and essentially controlled his life, ticking off each of the various, ill-advised attempts to cure himself along the way. He also pauses the action every now and then to go meta and comment on the making of the film itself, such as to explain how an actual porn star was unwittingly cast to play one of his ex-wives.
It might just be the most elaborate confessional ever committed to celluloid. It might also be the most dedicated example of navel-gazing since Morgan Spurlock’s literal navel-gazing in Super Size Me. Are we rooting for Caveh to cure his addiction because we want him to find true love and happiness, or is it that we just want him to shut up about it?
Both films are extremely focused on a single protagonist and his self-destructive sexual obsession. The protagonist of Shame is played by one of the most attractive, talented and intriguing actors of his generation; the protagonist of Sex Addict is played by the writer/director himself, a gawky, balding, vaguely creepy-looking shlemiel who speaks in a flat, reedy monotone. So admittedly, it’s sort of an unfair fight from the get-go. But onward.
Fassbender and McQueen (a renowned British multi-media artist, and no relation to the Cooler King) previously collaborated on the criminally little-seen Hunger (2008), one of the most astonishing feature directorial debuts of recent years. In that film, Fassbender, in a brilliant breakthrough performance, played Bobby Sands, the fatally stubborn real-life Irish political prisoner who starved himself to death in protest. With both films, McQueen’s biggest strength seems to be having the confidence and common sense to simply compose each shot (superb cinematography by Sean Bobbitt in both cases), nail his camera down, and then step back and let his actors work their magic. The result puts the audience in the frequently uncomfortable position of being voyeurs, as if we are watching Brandon’s charmingly awkward dinner date with Marianne from the next table over, standing right behind the couch on which Brandon and Sissy are brutally quarreling, or sitting in the audience as Sissy performs a heartbreaking torch-song rendition of “New York, New York.”
Once again, McQueen elicits electrifying performances from his leads. And Fassbender, playing another heavily flawed and unsettling but somehow sympathetic character, once again works wonders, able to say more with his eyes than most actors can with pages of dialogue; the two scenes between him and the elusive girl on the subway (Lucy Walters) are master classes in silent film acting. Mulligan (like Fassbender, a Brit doing a seamless New York accent) is a revelation as the sensuous but reckless and unstable Sissy, worlds removed from the bland sweetie-pies she’s played before, most recently in Drive. And James Badge Dale plays his inept wanna-be pick-up artist as so pitch-perfectly awkward and transparent that you can barely watch without cringing.
Shame is rated NC-17 for a handful of brief but intense sex scenes (most of which are more sad than sexy). Kudos to McQueen and his producers for not softening up the material in exchange for better box office potential, but here’s hoping Shame manages to overcome the stigma of its rating and get more attention than Hunger (available on Netflix Streaming; just queue it; trust me), as it’s one of the year’s most compelling, provocative, and refreshingly cinematic films, cementing McQueen’s and Fassbender’s reputations as world-class talents.
And then there’s Caveh Zahedi, who, despite sharing Brandon’s weakness, is in other ways his polar opposite. Where Brandon is the strong, silent type, Zahedi s the weak, motormouth type. He is in nearly every frame of I Am a Sex Addict as well as providing virtually non-stop narration through all of its 98 minutes, which are best taken in small doses. Which isn’t to say that it’s bad. It’s in fact more entertaining than a man narrating and recreating the tale of how his addiction to sex with prostitutes messed up his life has any right to be. There are decent laughs scattered throughout, and the vaguely Woody Allen-ish Zahedi is so vulnerable, so self-deprecating, so brutally frank about his own shortcomings that it’s nearly impossible not to root for the guy at least a little.
The movie has a sort of charming, self-ridiculing, homemade modesty to it that’s hard to resist; e.g. Zahedi implores the audience to accept that the San Francisco-shot scene they’re about to see is set in Paris, at which point a lone extra walks across the frame, wearing a beret.
It all zips along on that brand of charm for a while, but ultimately its thin, jagged, and repetitive story can’t quite sustain itself. We’re never quite able to relate to his bizarre fixation on prostitutes, nor is Zahedi ever quite able to make sense of it. So the movie gradually wears out its welcome, and Zahedi’s engagingly odd persona (his dry, affect-less narration is reminiscent of David Byrne’s in True Stories, but without the self-awareness) grows increasingly tiresome. By the end, as he finishes his story and heads into the next room for his wedding, our overriding emotion is one of pity for the bride who’s about to vow to share the rest of her life with him. One review of the film mentions an audience member at a post-screening Q&A who perhaps put it best: “I really liked your film… but I hate you.”
Shame is the work of several artists at the top of their form. I Am a Sex Addict is the work of a guy who felt strangely compelled to confess his own wacky neuroses on film. It’s a quirky, occasionally funny, post-modern curiosity but doesn’t aspire to be much more than that. I recommend Shame to anyone who appreciates challenging, discussion-provoking, adult-oriented material and fearless performances. I recommend I Am a Sex Addict to anyone with a taste for the offbeat and some time to kill. Or to put it another way, our winner is… Shame.