The cruel paradox of addiction is that it transforms a source of pleasure into an inescapable, insatiable need. An abundance — an overdose — of movies and books explores the logic of this condition, mostly with respect to drugs or alcohol. “Shame,” the relentless new feature from the British artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen, has a lot in common with films that plumb the toxic romance of the bottle or the needle. The crucial difference is that its protagonist, a handsome, youngish Manhattanite named Brandon (Michael Fassbender), is hooked on sex.
This poses a special challenge for Mr. McQueen, since there are rules, conventions and cognitive habits that limit how explicit — and how explicitly unpleasant — movie sex can be. Watching someone else take a drink or snort a line will not cause intoxication in the viewer, but watching other people get naked and squirm around together is a sure-enough turn-on to be the basis of a lucrative industry. How can visual pleasure communicate existential misery? It is a real and interesting challenge, and if “Shame” falls short of meeting it, the seriousness of its effort is hard to deny.
Mr. McQueen does not take the easy route of selecting for his case study a lonely, unattractive shut-in, but rather a very good-looking, admirably proportioned fellow with nice clothes (when he is in them), decent manners and a well-paying job. Brandon, who works at a small high-tech firm and lives in an austere apartment in a Chelsea high-rise, seems to be stuck in a sleek, downbeat 21st-century version of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. That poem, as incisive an anatomy of erotic compulsion as exists in English, begins by evoking “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame” and cycles through the rages and frustrations of lust before collapsing in exhausted fatalism:
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
to shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
“Shame,” anchored to the treadmill of Brandon’s pathology, strips this ancient, futile wisdom of its poetry. Mr. McQueen is a tenaciously literal filmmaker, mistrusting metaphor and psychological speculation and dwelling on the facts of behavior and bodily experience. His debut feature, “Hunger,” in which Mr. Fassbender played Bobby Sands, the I.R.A. militant who starved himself to death in a British-administered prison in 1981, was an unflinching look at the corporeal consequences of political zeal. It focused less on the nature of Sands’s cause than on the effects, on his own person, of his commitment to it.
And the most memorable aspect of that film may have been Mr. Fassbender’s commitment to the role, a discipline he re-enacts here in circumstances that are only superficially more pleasant. A prisoner of his own needs, Brandon — to use a curiously apt Victorian phrase — abuses himself mercilessly. When he cannot manage a casual encounter, he calls an escort service, and when that is inconvenient, there is always an Internet chat site or the men’s room at work, where he sneaks off for solitary daytime activity.
His routine is disrupted by the arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whose neediness is the opposite of Brandon’s emotional detachment and whose sloppiness threatens his self-control. Her history of self-abuse apparently includes cutting and possible suicide attempts, and her intrusive dependency provokes Brandon to frightening and otherwise uncharacteristically violent displays of temper.
Different as they are, these siblings clearly share a self-destructive tendency, the sources of which lie somewhere in the background, beyond the reach of the film’s curiosity. “We’re not bad people,” Sissy says in a teary message she leaves on Brandon’s cellphone. “We just come from a bad place,” a place specified only as New Jersey.
The New York they find themselves in is a melancholy and seductive place, where easy money and relaxed sexual mores combine to produce an atmosphere of general anomie brightened by a few glimmers of comic possibility. In one brilliantly executed early scene, Brandon stands by as his boss (James Badge Dale), a boorish would-be ladies’ man, fails spectacularly to pick up a pretty blonde at a bar. Brandon succeeds without making an overt move or saying very much, and Mr. McQueen’s deft choreography of eye contact reveals everything we need to know about the workings of desire.
More awkward, but much funnier, is a dinner date at which Brandon and Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a co-worker, are subjected to the attentions of an aggressively incompetent waiter and also to their own uncertainty about the rules of attraction. But these moments feel less like insights into human interaction than like concessions to an idea of social life that Mr. McQueen does not quite believe in.
More problematic is his reliance on moments of showy cinematic beauty — a long nighttime tracking shot, a Hudson River sunset seen from a high window in the Standard Hotel — that serve at once to alleviate the film’s harshness and undermine its rigor. And the impulse to explore Brandon’s problem in some kind of narrative leaves “Shame” caught between therapeutic melodrama and melodramatic despair. The climax is, for Brandon, a chaotic downward slide that blends provocation with a scolding, breathless moralism. How far will he go? He’ll have sex with a man! With two women!
Is “Shame” the name of something Brandon does feel, or of something the filmmakers think he should feel? The movie, for all its displays of honesty (which is to say nudity), is also curiously coy. It presents Brandon for our titillation, our disapproval and perhaps our envy, but denies him access to our sympathy. I know, that’s the point, that Mr. McQueen wants to show how the intensity of Brandon’s need shuts him off from real intimacy, but this seems to be a foregone conclusion, the result of an elegant experiment that was rigged from the start.
“Shame” is rated NC-17 (No one 17 or under admitted). Younger viewers will have to go elsewhere to learn that sex can sometimes be fun.