Sex and Shame: Why hell is getting what you want

In an era where sexual license is an unquestioned good, Shame is brave enough to consider its costs.

For a movie about sex addiction called Shame, the film moralises a lot less than you might imagine. Rather, Shame settles for suggesting that getting all that you want can sometimes be the worst thing of all.

Michael Fassbender, Hollywood's latest sought-after leading man, plays Brandon, an attractive New York executive who leads an empty existence punctuated by brief and anonymous hook-ups with women. He's ruled by his carnal appetite, seeking out sex in company, online, and by himself if need be.

And yet aside from the obvious release that sex gives Brandon, the addictive nature of his compulsion hollows him out till he seems more machinelike than man. While he can be charming, he doesn't seem all that happy, with his handsome face often blank and impassive. There's little joy in his mechanical encounters with women, making the sex in Shame supremely unsexy.

That's the substance of Brandon's existence until his emotionally messy sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) crash lands on his couch, sleeps with his philandering boss, and upsets the balance of his carefully controlled life. Where Brandon is frigid about his feelings, Sissy is needy, wheedling, and scarcely put off by his dedicated efforts to freeze her out.

But Sissy can lower Brandon's defences if need be, and never more delicately so than in the haunting rendition of New York, New York she delivers in a cocktail lounge. That song conventionally celebrates opportunity, success, and dreams fulfilled in New York City – and if you “can make it there / [You'll] make it anywhere.”

When sung by the fragile Sissy, however, this upbeat anthem becomes crushingly sad. Her version is wistful and courses with unfulfilled longing. In her sparkly gold dress Sissy is like a Christmas bauble – beautiful to regard, but likely to shatter if roughly handled. Her performance is so devastating that it forces a crack in Brandon's smooth mask, and through that fissure his tears flow.

Sissy unlocks something in Brandon – maybe because her dewy-eyed gaze has spotted the lie behind the glitz. For while Brandon himself enjoys many of the trappings of city success – good looks, money, a good job, an apartment, even a steady stream of willing (or paid) sexual partners – he's completely controlled by his sexual compulsion. Clearly, “making it” is not what it seems.

On a whim one day, Brandon chucks out his stash of porn. He embarks on a tentative flirtation with pretty co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). But so many of his sexual encounters have been devoid of feeling that when Marianne is willing to get intimate with Brandon he finds that he can't.

All of which makes Shame not only about sex addiction but a study in modern alienation, where the ability to disconnect from others is at once a privilege of contemporary life and also its most exacting price.

New York City is the perfect setting for this drama of loneliness. Its anonymous skyscrapers with their shiny, metallic edges, bland corporate settings, and even Brandon's nondescript apartment offer little in the way of creaturely comfort. It's the perfect place for two broken people such as Brandon and Sissy to lose themselves.

Little clue is given as to why this pair of siblings is so messed up – or so comfortable being naked in front of each other – except for the cryptic line Sissy leaves on Brandon's voicemail: “We're not bad people … We just come from a bad place.”

She leaves that message because true to isolationist form, Brandon doesn't pick up her call. He's busy seducing a girl at a seedy bar, or getting beaten up by her enraged boyfriend. Or maybe Brandon can't answer his phone because he's stumbling into a gay club for a brief tryst before winding up in a threesome with two women.

Everything in this scene with the women is bathed in a warm, golden glow but the musical score, composed by Harry Escott, offers an alternate commentary on the tangled mess of bodies on the screen. When the ascending strings of the score reach their peak, the cold, high melody that results is brittle enough to make you wince.

The music, then, provides a striking counterpoint to the on-screen sex, showing us how equally stranded Brandon is between ecstasy and agony. While Brandon is getting exactly what he wants and the visual aesthetic is heavenly with that beautiful yellow light, sonically, he's trapped in his own private hell because … well, he's getting exactly what he wants.

Shame reunites Fassbender with director Steve McQueen. Together, they made the acclaimed film Hunger, based on a true story about IRA political prisoner Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in a hunger strike. That role involved a gruelling physical transformation for Fassbender, who whittled down to 57kg to play the dying Sands.

Both Shame and Hunger are obsessed with the human body under duress, whether it's wasting away from hunger or held captive to uncontrollable sexual desire. For Iain Canning, who produced both films, the body offers a visceral way to explore questions of freedom.

In Hunger, Canning says that the imprisoned Sands starves himself “to create the only freedom he can” whereas Shame tells the opposite story – “of a man who has every freedom, and yet … uses his body to create his own prison.”

It's a provocative thought – for sex is one of the chief ways in which we conceive of freedom in the West. Apart from the requirement that sex take place between consenting adults, modern sensibilities settle for no less than the individual's right to decide their sexual arrangements for themselves – that's the essence of freedom, after all.

The plight of Brandon at the end of Shame leaves us to ponder whether too much of a good thing is its own form of tyranny – whether individual sexual freedom has equal chance of enslaving as liberating.

In an era where sexual license is an unquestioned good, Shame is brave enough to consider its costs.

Justine Toh is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.

This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.