The idea of there being any misery surrounding sex addiction seems laughable but this powerful and touching film proves that when sex becomes a compulsion it can be devastating. Here is the first brilliant film of 2012 thanks to a brilliant script, direction and two central performances.
Brandon (Fassbender) is an outwardly successful corporate type leading a seemingly charmed existence in Manhattan. However beneath his confident exterior lies a sex addict with a desperate need for flesh regardless of whether it is live or virtual. When his emotional extrovert younger sister Sissy (Mulligan) arrives at his apartment unannounced, Brandon’s fragile life begins to unravel and the true face of his problems begins to show through his facade.
The first shot of the film has Michael Fassbender lying on a bed in post-coital pose but he looks enervated. There is no sense of awe and wonder or achievement traditionally conveyed after sex in films just exhaustion and sadness in Fassbender’s face. Straightaway you realise that there is a darkness dwelling underneath everything.
This view is further compounded by the locations. Brandon’s life takes place in a wintry looking New York, all unmemorable offices and restaurants with the steel and glass of post-modern architecture. His apartment has a sterile feel due to its minimalist style and the only colour comes from record sleeves and stashes of porn he has hidden about. There is an overall lack of warmth in the world which is mirrored in the sex which has had joy and life leeched out of it because it has become a compulsion for Brandon, a procession of nude bodies and squalid, loveless encounters which act as a fix and that is without mentioning the endless pornography he watches online.
Fassbender gives a brilliant performance as Brandon. He conveys vulnerability and sexiness in even doses. He is a beautiful man who can use a single glance to root a woman to the spot. He looks quietly confident and at ease with himself compared to other men around him but as the camera lingers on his face you can see darker elements creep in: a wolfish gaze that enters his face when talking or just observing a woman and during sex there are moments of doubt, disgust, and shame.
There are contrasting scenes such as a date with a co-worker where you can see he is a normal person but as Brandon’s obsession with sex is all-consuming it affects his every waking moment. Steve McQueen uses visual inventiveness brilliantly to convey this. One technique is the use of rapid-fire montages of nude women or glimpses of flesh and then a cut to an out of focus shot of Brandon staring off camera before another shot establishes what is in his eye-line. As much as it paints a convincing sequence of obsession you become aware of his confusion and through Fassbender’s acting you realise that something is not right inside of him, but what?
Enter Sissy as played by Mulligan.
Where to begin? I love her? Okay that was a bit much but her performances always astound me. Despite having little screen-time I found her to be vital not just as an entrance into Brandon’s character but as a life force in the entire film.
Unlike Brandon who has internalised his problems and is falling apart inside, Sissy is a flighty, vivacious person who bears her soul to the world. Her character is constantly reaching out, particularly to her older brother Brandon. A simple dialogue exchange reveals the neediness Sissy has compared to Brandon’s usual routine of distancing when she asks him to see her perform at a club.
“You should come to hear me.”
“Yeah I will.”
“Yeah I will like last time?”
He does see her and in one of the best sequences in recent films we understand a connection between two human beings, one of the strongest in the world, that of brother and sister. As Sissy sings “New York New York” in the club it is caught in extreme close-up and in one long take. Then the camera cuts to Brandon as he responds with raw emotion, his guard dropped by his sister’s talent and her message that only they can understand.
The scenes where they physically interact with each other has a playfulness and a creeping incestuous element as we wonder at Brandon’s condition and their background but what really caught my attention was the fact that they acted like siblings – they conveyed that special bond that can unite them against others. It was in simple actions where I believed they could read and needle each other and that they hurt and need each other more than they can admit. It is through Sissy that we get more of an insight into Brandon’s problems with intimacy and if it was not for her character I doubt I would have cared half as much or found the film as affecting as I did.
It could have easily blown the subtle relationship by giving us information on their background but the script is smart and subtle enough to give us hints that felt genuine. Sissy has scars on her wrists, the two aren’t eager to talk to others about their backgrounds. All we get is a simple line:
“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”
The script does not elaborate. It does not need to because we understand that whatever these two have been through has almost wrecked them and unites them. We empathise and even come to sympathise by the end. However if it had not been for Sissy I would not have come to this conclusion.
I enjoyed this movie a lot. To focus on the sex is to miss the artistic rigorousness and intelligence behind the film and the amazing performances. Fassbender and Mulligan confirm that they are the best actors of this generation and McQueen is a formidable directing talent.
Release Date: 13th January 2012 (UK)
Running Time: 100 mins
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Lucy Walters