Shame brings to mind Leaving Las Vegas. They’re both about addiction, and neither are about redemption. They’re both about addicts who have lost all inhibition, all control over their addictions. They’re about people who’ve burrowed into their addictions, feeding their needs far past satiety, past loathing. They wrap themselves in shame. They are their addictions.
With Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, it’s alcohol. With Michel Fassbender in Shame, it’s orgasm. And while these addictions are terrible and destructive, they aren’t, ipso facto, particularly compelling. Humanity is compelling. In Leaving Las Vegas, humanity comes in the guise of Elisabeth Shue as a prostitute who recognizes the man inside the addiction. In Shame, it’s Carey Mulligan as a sister so damaged she forces the man to look beyond his.
Cage, of course, won an Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas. Fassbender deserved one for Shame, delivering a performance breathtaking in its fearlessness and competence. His character begins the film a slave to his compulsions, yet he seems to have found some kind of a workable life balance. When Mulligan’s character enters the scene, however, he’s forced to see himself. His dawning realization, his reaction to that realization, and his subsequent evolution (or lack thereof) is absolutely magnificent to behold.
My tastes in film run toward the upbeat low- to middlebrow. A movie like Shame, like Leaving Las Vegas, generally isn’t my thing. But sometimes, a film is so good, so well made, so compelling, that it defies those tastes and becomes something I recommend to all my friends. Leaving Las Vegas is such a film. So is Shame.