This is a wonderful, powerful film which made a great impression when shown at the Leeds Film Festival in late 2011.
Brandon, brilliantly played by Fassbinder, works in New York in an unspecified job, but he is clearly successful and on the top table. His relationships at work are defined by his position in the hierarchy: his boss is his mate, but it is pretty clear that Brandon is eager to please him and that they are certainly not close. He has a series of sexual relationships with women in the film which are driven purely by sexual gratification: he visits prostitutes, seems skilled at picking up women in social encounters for no-strings sex and is clearly heavily into porn sites, including webcams and chat. He is sexually predatory, but only in seeking consensual sex. His home laptop 'sleeps' in porn access mode, it seems, and his boss complains that Brandon's computer check reveals a hard drive swamped with extreme porn: responsibility is deflected onto a recent intern. His flat is clean, characterless and monochrome: there are no signs that any of his frequent encounters leave any trace in his domestic life and it seems little more than a space to live in.
Into this emotional desert arrives his sister, Cissy, a singer. Despite her need for somewhere to stay, he is so determined on keeping his life uncluttered by an fetters, emotional or otherwise, that his agreement is only reluctantly given and given with very bad grace. Cissy's presence in his life once more and the emotional neediness which comes with it is something he can barely tolerate, not because it is simply inconvenient but because it stirs up unspecified emotional trauma from the past. She self-harms, desperately needs warmth from someone, but Brandon is unwilling or unable to provide it. Her presence in the film, and that of a co-worker, Marianne, with whom he has something approaching an affectionate encounter, are the catalysts for a deeply painful epiphany for Brandon. He cannot access the tenderness which Marianne offers and is forced to face Cissy's profound sadness in dramatic fashion.
In fact, the film is framed by representative encounters: Brandon pursues (metaphorically and then literally) a woman on the subway. They exchange looks full of sexual energy. At the end of the film, the same woman sees him again and this time initiates the gaze. The difference in his reaction is a measure of the change within him and a sense of his insight into his predicament. But any change is as ill-defined and lightly suggested as the root causes of the siblings' profound unhappiness: a number of possible causes of this occur to the viewer as the film progresses, but I would suggest that the the lack of clarity here is important to the film's effect. (At one point Cissy says, 'We're not bad people: just come from a bad place.') This film is not an advert for the successes of quick fix therapy, nor is it judgemental and disapproving.
As well as Fassbender's mesmerising performance, Cary Mulligan as Cissy is also outstanding: there is a wonderful scene where she sings in pretty relentless close-up 'New York, New York', not as a high-octane celebration of the city but as a poignant appeal for connection. (There has been some negative comment about her rendering of the song: if you actually read the lyrics, which refer to 'little town blues', and a desire to 'wake up in a city,......, To find I'm king of the hill, Head of the list, Cream of the crop, At the top of the heap,' it seems to me that her approach is entirely in keeping. Someone is depressed and is desperate for the transformation that somehow easily and passively, just being in this city will achieve. It doesn't seem to be the solution for Brandon or Cissy because, of course, change generally comes from within and they, like the rest of us, carry their baggage with them!) In my opinion the song is superbly done and very moving. The film is brilliantly shot too with a great eye for formal structures and a palette generally bled of brightness and warmth. There are long takes, such as Brandon's jogging, which capture perfectly his isolation and essential aimlessness.
Bleak stuff? Undoubtedly, though not quite as bleak as Bergman's similarly titled film. But riveting, involving and affecting. It is completely unerotic, and I'm reluctant to describe it as a film 'about a sex addict' which simultaneously might be see as a come-on by some, and an oversimplification by me, mistaking the wound for the real illness. Perhaps describing it as a film about alienation and emotional disengagement is nearer the mark.
I can't wait to see it a second time! A minor masterpiece!