Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie 18 cert, general release, 100 min

This story of sex addiction is a suffocatingly moral work of art, writes DONALD CLARKE

IF YOU know anything about the hugely powerful Shame, you will be aware that it stars Michael Fassbender as a man who can’t keep control of his genitals. Brandon Sullivan eyes up women on the subway. He avails of prostitutes. Given what he gets up to in the loo during work hours – and how often he gets up to it – the poor man must be in serious danger of repetitive strain injury.

We’ve been here before. One thinks of Richard Gere in American Gigoloor Warren Beatty in Shampoo: while shagging manically, empty dissolute men create pungent metaphors for decadent times. But Shameis a very different beast.

Steve McQueen, who directed Fassbender as Bobby Sands in the transcendent Hunger, believes in the much-derided concept of sexual addiction. Forget all those married movie stars who – after being caught sandwiched between Trixie and Lulu in a parking lot – bleat that they’re suffering from a terrible illness. Played with unsettling commitment by the flawless Fassbender, Brandon is presented as a genuine victim whose couplings provide nothing more than joyless bursts of hollow release.

For those who can buy that premise, Shameoffers further evidence of McQueen’s singular talent for realising nightmares. The story (such as it is) kicks off when Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon’s sister, comes to stay with the obscurely employed protagonist – advertising perhaps? – in his stark New York apartment. Both are damaged. Brandon is consumed by this need for constant sexual relief. Sissy has a history of self-harming and a tendency to collapse into hysteria. We never learn precisely what childhood trauma poisoned their relationship, but the very sight of Sissy sends her brother into a nervous fug.

The sparse script by the director and Abi Morgan (who also wrote The Iron Lady) propels the protagonist through a series of increasingly desperate sexual exploits. He talks dirty to a girl in a bar and receives a beating from her boyfriend. He invites oral sex in a gay hangout. McQueen catches Brandon’s face frozen in orgasmic misery during an encounter with two blank-faced women. Aware that he is doing the wrong thing, Brandon does attempt to engage in a conventional relationship but, snatching an afternoon in a grand hotel room, he finds himself unable to perform. Anonymity is, it seems, an active constituent of the drug.

Utilising a series of long takes scored to surging strings, McQueen makes the expensive apartments, suave bars and sleek office spaces of Manhattan seem as unwelcoming as the excreta-covered walls of the Maze in Hunger. Virtually every shot – notably a long, unbroken dialogue in a restaurant – could be looped in a gallery to create one of McQueen’s famously creepy video installations. Few films have been so subtle in their exterior mirroring of interior unease.

McQueen’s aesthetic sense slips only once: when, hazy in yet another stylish bar, Mulligan sings New York, New Yorkat funereal pace, the film drifts into queasy and weirdly uncharacteristic bathos.

But what is this ugly beauty telling us? Well, for all the talk of addiction, Shame(that title alone) comes across as a suffocatingly moral piece of work. The analogy with substance abuse is unavoidable. The film suggests, however, a particularly po-faced, puritanical lecture on that subject. Drug taking or sexual coupling is, you understand, never, ever pleasurable for the addict. It’s just the scratching of an appalling itch. And each scratch makes the irritation more unbearable. So don’t try it? Okay, kids?

The film seems, in fact, burdened with disapproval for every facet of the modern world. Men do pointless, empty work in forbidding Orwellian office buildings. Recreation involves sinister games of seduction. Culture – books, records, art – sits on the shelf as a way of demonstrating one’s hipness.

This hypnotic film will certainly hook the viewer and eat away at his or her brain. No other contemporary director has such a sure control of his or her imagery. The underlying current of Puritanism is, however, more than a little oppressive.

Shameis, in short, the most wholesome film made about unwholesomeness since The Exorcist.The distributors can, if minded, sling that quote on the poster.