Watching “Shame” again – pleasure and joy

When it came out, I saw “Shame” in the theater. I wrote about it, somewhat incoherently (in retrospect).

I’m watching it again, now, at home. Last night, I watched the first half of it.

It yanked my heart out. Michael Fassbender’s performance as Brandon is brilliant, heart-rending. And it captures so much of what I remember from that time in my life – the empty, shallow, driven daily existence.

In the opening sequence, Brandon rides on the subway (the downtown BMT, for New Yorkers) from his soulless apartment in the soulless neighborhood of 31st St. between 5th and 6th. (Everything about Brandon is soulless: his carriage, his speech, his home, even his wanking and fucking.) He sits on an improbable subway – everyone sits silently staring ahead. One passenger reads – a book. There’s not a phone to be seen, not an earbud. The scene is a dystopian version of the frequently heard lament that we all are lost in our electronics: if we weren’t, would we necessarily be better off, it asks? Or would we just be (lost in) ourselves?

Across from him sits a comely young woman (played by Lucy Walters), smiling shyly, crossing her legs. She appears, at first, flattered by his gaze. Is she coming on to him? Does she want him? He imagines she might. He sidles up behind her as she prepares to get off, and the expression on her face shifts as he presses against her, as his hand brushes hers on the pole (her left hand, adorned with a big engagement ring). She looks downright scared. But what is she scared of? Is she scared of him? Of his attention, his closeness, his aggressiveness? Or herself, her own temptation?

We don’t learn.

She dashes off, ahead of him, up the stairs and out of the station. Brandon follows, manically: he wants her, he needs her. But he loses her.

Was the whole thing a fantasy? Did they just have a normal New York interaction, poisoned by his mania? Was it even a flirtation? Was there a promise, withdrawn? A tease? Or were his lenses distorted?

Through the first half of the movie, we follow Brandon, almost as he seems to follow himself. Aimless, hapless, coursing from one soulless, empty sexual interaction to the next. We only see him smile, authentically, once, as a prostitute removes her clothes for him in his bedroom $200 and fewer than five words after she arrives. This out-of-body sensation, of observing oneself going through the motions of life, will be familiar to anyone who has pursued the chimera of addictive rapture.

His compulsion, his behavior, is so different from mine and yet, so similar: for him, the process is entirely about fucking, about having his cock in the next woman. We don’t learn enough to psychoanalyze him, to learn why he needs that fuck so much. But it’s clear that one thing he doesn’t need is any sort of connection to the women he fucks. Fucking is the beginning and the end of his interactions with the women he beds. Those women hardly exist for him, except as holes.

For me, the sex was almost incidental. Well, not quite. But it wasn’t, at all, the point. In another world, I might have done with interactions that didn’t feature orgasms, that didn’t feature fucking. I crave/d something so simple, so pure: I want/ed to be liked, to be desired, to feel special – ironic, given some of the challenges I’ve faced with women I’ve dated and interacted since that time in my life. And I want/ed to feel dirty, undeserving, shameful, at the same time. But for me, the connection, the human interaction at the heart of sex was so central: I wanted to feel that a woman was giving me her body, was ministering to mine, to my body and my mind, because she wanted to. My commercial encounters were kabuki designed to produce that illusion (imperfectly, incompletely). If I simply could have collected women’s willingness, I suspect that would have done.

As for Brandon, my years of acting out hollowed out my insides, deprived me of any sense of joy. Pleasure? Sure. But joy? No way.

And this is the bait in the trap of compulsive sexual behavior, at least for me: the fantasy that pleasure and joy will, somehow, connect.

But they don’t.


  1. Understand what you mean, even though you have sex with a woman who doesn’t know you well, but you also wish she will be able to connect to you. Can be quite a challenge for both of you!

  2. I was utterly disappointed by this movie. Couldn’t care one bit about Fassbenders character, life or anything.. Carey Mulligan did evoke feelings, but the movie felt flat, stylized (to no gain) and empty. But not the good kind of empty..

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