Directed by: Steve McQueen
Premise: A sex addict (Michael Fassbender) living in New York is visited by his sister (Carey Mulligan) who disrupts his life.
What Works: Movies about sexuality are tough to get right. Even well intentioned films often fall into traps set by deeply entrenched storytelling traditions and end up portraying sexuality in a leery pornographic way or in a puritanical fashion. The year 2011 saw the release of two mainstream studio films, No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits, which attempted to break that mold. Although neither of them was entirely terrible, both films ultimately retreated to traditional notions of sexuality within the confines of a standard romantic comedy relationship. Shame attempts—and succeeds—at doing something much more risky and confrontational. This is the story of an addict and when films deal with addiction they can take one of two routes: either they make the addict a fool who the audience holds to ridicule or the film makes the addict a figure of empathy whose appetites have some relevance to the audience. Shame takes the latter route, recognizing that addiction is a symptom, not the illness, and it sets about exploring why this man can go on sexual binges but cannot maintain an emotional relationship. Michael Fassbender gives a fearless performance as the main character, exposing himself both physically and emotionally, and despite some extravagant sexuality there is also a sad desperation to the character that Fassbender effectively conveys in a lingering gaze or an exhausted slump. And that’s what gives Shame’s portrayal of sexual dysfunction its lasting punch. This isn’t a film appealing to our inner-scopophiliac; Shame suggests that contemporary life has rendered all of us a little like Fassbender’s character, seeking temporary relief from the emptiness of our lives through endless stimulation.
What Doesn’t: Michael Fassbender gives a terrific performance in Shame but the film might have been just a little more daring if it had cast a less photogenic actor in the role. Fassbender is a traditionally attractive, masculine male and because of that the film’s portrayal of his sexual habits is less threatening than if the film had cast an actor who did not fit this profile. Ultimately, Shame is less about the sex scenes than about the moments before and after them and actor Michael Fassbender and writer/director Steve McQueen should be praised for going to the places that they have.
Bottom Line: Shame is a very brave film that challenges audiences with its stark sexuality. This is not a film that preaches to its viewers or spells out its message. The filmmakers of Shame credit the audience’s intelligence and because of that this is a film that will inspire debate about its merit and meaning long after it has ended.
Episode: #372 (January 22, 2012)