Steve McQueen’s Shame and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon: The Sex Addict’s Life

Although each of these films work more than well enough on their own, it came to mind recently that they make a fascinating pair, because their differences are perfectly complementary, like mirror images or the contents of a two-piece puzzle, and the picture they complete when put together is that of a shared wisdom that would help not just many sex addicts but men in general too. Shame is the more European of the two, with its spectacular long takes and tracking shots, lack of dialogue, and ruminative nature fulfilling a pessimistic, highly individual portrait of a man whose outwardly successful life is falling apart due to his addiction, while Don Jon takes a Jersey Shore-esque stereotype, that of the brash, Italian-American playboy, places him in an equally cheekily-made film full of porn clips and jump cuts, and allows him to find a way out of the wilderness of his proclivities. Thus, though the films showcase the day-to-day nature and impact of their protagonists’ addiction to sex in very different ways, they both expose the wider social implications of this obsession, even if it is non-addictive: that many modern men have lost the ability to differentiate between forms of sex that concentrate mostly on their pleasure versus the far more transcendental, and unselfish, intimacy of two people becoming one, and that easy access to sex, both on the streets of New York in Shame and the internet in Don Jon, has played a pivotal role in these developments.

Shame begins with its lead character Brandon (Michael Fassbender) riding the subway, and while doing so he spots a pretty woman sitting across from him. A series of smiles and looks between them establish a shared attraction, but as the ride continues the viewer perceives a subtle change in her body language, for her short flirtation has been returned by his continued, intense staring. She gets up to get off the train, and chooses to hang onto the pole closest to him so she can flash him her wedding ring. Undeterred after seeing it, he takes up a position right behind her at the same pole and follows her out the door, but she has quickened her pace and loses him very shortly after. Frustrated, though not very visibly so, he gets back on the subway and goes about his business. The coolness of his predatory chase is matched perfectly by the coolness of the filmmaking, as the entire sequence is wordless and the score effective but subtle, and a lot of the emotion comes out of the startlingly intimate medium two-shots of the two parties to a would-be hook-up. By contrast, Don Jon begins with a loud montage of jump cuts of porn clips and TV ads, but since there is no narration at first it is subtle in suggesting that American culture is so over-sexualized that even fast-food commercials are far more about showcasing scantily-clad models than selling food. This is followed by protagonist Jon Martello Jr.’s narration explicating why he thinks porn is better than real sex, though he continues to have plenty of the latter with conventionally attractive women. While Brandon’s chasing of a good-looking subway rider is handled very intimately, the ads shown in Don Jon point to a society-wide issue, that of the pervasive nature of sex in all aspects of Americana. Notwithstanding other differences in shot lengths and use of dialogue, these opening moments do show plenty of similarities in their establishing of Brandon and Jon as likable people with outwardly successful lives who have been able, for the most part, to keep their addictions private. Moreover, both films immediately show how easy access to sex helps Brandon and Jon keep this privacy, as Brandon has what he feels is an opening to casual sex with a stranger (even a married one) and does not have to feel any public shame for it in a world in which there are websites that facilitate cheating, while Jon has the easy Internet access to porn in the comfort of his own room, and later on his cell phone, away from prying eyes.

Two women do eventually catch Jon watching porn, prompting him to rethink his desire to do so, and Brandon’s carefully constructed lie of a life begins to unravel because of the attentions of two women also. Firstly, Jon meets the “perfect ten” woman of his dreams, Barbara, who is played by Scarlett Johansson, and she turns out to be as swayed by visions of other people’s romantic lives as Jon is by others’ sex lives; she is an addict of Hollywood romantic comedies, and has internalized them to the point that she has very one-sided attitudes on how her man should lead his life. Similarly, Brandon’s skewed sexual perspective is matched by his sister Sissy’s (Carey Mulligan), who breaks into his bachelor pad and starts living on his couch, much to his chagrin. There are hints of a crossing of sexual boundaries done to or by these siblings in childhood, but director McQueen wisely does not dig too deep into that, because his film is not about sexual abuse, incest, or even sex addiction, it’s about intimacy and the lack thereof in many contemporary relationships. Though Jon and Barbara have frequent sex and share a mutual attraction, they are unable to truly please the other because their views on romance and sex are too individually-minded, while Brandon and Sissy’s views on sexuality have been tragically perverted to such a point that they cannot have lasting relationships with anyone, even their own sibling.

A coworker of Brandon’s, Marianne, asks him out, and while he holds his own in the highly codified world of dating, once both of them attempt to get physical he shuts down, for the only sex he can tolerate is with strangers and requires no long-term commitment. It is clear that for Brandon there is no way out, because he is too ashamed of himself to consider he an equal to any woman who would have him as a long-term partner, and here is where the films differ the most, for Don Jon is primarily a comedy and thus reliant on a happy ending. Jon meets Julianne Moore’s Esther, who teaches him that his form of sex is too self-serving to result in the kind of intimacy that sustains long relationships, and that losing oneself in another person is, while a more difficult task, infinitely more pleasurable for both people. What it requires is an open mind and an ability to communicate not just what you want from your lover but to listen to what he/she wants. I’ve read somewhere that sex is like a pail that’s full of water, and it is up to the parties involved to carry the pail over to the far side, which represents true intimacy, while spilling the least amount of water possible, and with both parties coming out pleased with the endeavor. The protagonists in Shame and Don Jon would do well to learn how to do that.

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