The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article To say that Shame is a film about sex addiction is limiting. ‘Issue movies’ that come backed by special interest groups, with the best possible intentions, and are then used as cultural talking points, tend to be weirdly demeaning to both the films themselves and the issues involved. Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988), for instance, was about much more than just autism. Tom Cruise gave one of his best performances as Charlie, the self-obsessed and deeply unhappy car salesman; in comparison, Dustin Hoffman was only okay. As for the autism, which was on its first big screen outing, the backlash soon followed, the film being accused of cutsie-ing the condition (see: the nauseating kiss) and, rather than doing away with prejudices about a mental health problem, actually contributing to them by so readily equating autism with savant-like skills.

Of course, many will feel unease with the linking of a (now) recognised condition such as autism with sex addiction, which, as well as being open to much eyebrow-raising and barroom banter, has the additional stigma of being associated with Michael Douglas. Sex addiction, for all we might try to take it seriously, seems a specific case of the wider syndrome of affluenza, a postmodern malady invented for people who don’t struggle with anything like ‘real problems’, such as deprivation or the absence of clean drinking water. It has about the same weight and urgency as being a ‘chocoholic’, or having strong caviar dependency issues. Steve McQueen should be applauded for not avoiding these judgements but inviting them. Michael Fassbender’s character Brandon, has all the advantages: he is prosperous; he has a good job in one of the most vibrant cities in the world; he is attractive enough to attract without even trying; he is intelligent, cultured, well tailored, has a great apartment and a decent hi-fi. And his only problem is that he shags too much. So where is the pain? Where is the problem? Where’s the shame in that?

Of course, this attitude reveals our own limited, often immature and self-deceiving relationship to sex. Our preconceived notion of sex as an intrinsic good, as being the be-all-and-end-all of social existence, our fantasies of swingerdom, all of which run contrary to most of our behaviour, which still follows relatively conservative and well-worn routes of wild oats / monogamy / adultery / and death. We might watch porn, we might watch a lot of porn, but we don’t only watch porn. We might masturbate frequently, but we don’t masturbate constantly. We might fantasize about promiscuity, might even practice it for a while, but few adopt it as a lifestyle. As Frankie Goes to Hollywood once asked, ‘Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new Gods? (Yeah-a-yeah, yeah, ow-ow-ow)’. But, as with Gods so with sex; we pay lots of lip service but may approach with extreme caution.

Sex in the cinema almost always suffers (and benefits) from the latent degree of performing that also exists in the thing itself. Just as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus made audiences both thrilled and uneasy - because, after all is said and done, what is the difference between performing black magic and pretending to perform black magic? - so sex in cinema is plagued by our own anxieties about the tendentious nature of the real. It was this that gave actresses reputations which were only a pubic hair above prostitutes. Bertolucci was insistent that Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando really do the deed in Last Tango in Paris (1972), an urging that Brando successfully resisted. (There is more than a little Brando in Brandon, both in the intensity and danger of Fassbender’s performance and the proclivities of the character.) Mickey Rourke would brag about his real-life exploits with his leading ladies in Angel Heart (1987) and Wild Orchid (1989), and obviously enticing rumours of various onscreen couplings being unsimulated have circulated from Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now (1973) to Jane March (the sinner from Pinner) and Tony Leung Ka Fi in The Lover (1992). More recently, it has become increasingly common to include scenes of real sex with the performers actually, you know, doing it: Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Baise-Moi (2000), Intimacy (2001), The Brown Bunny (2003) and 9 Songs (2004) have all shown real sex acts, occasionally employing actors from the porn industry to do so. But of course this begs the question: what is real sex? Is it simply a biological definition? Is there room for Bill Clinton-like ambivalence? Doesn’t having a camera crew there, multiple takes, editing etc. render the concept of real almost irrelevant? Is sex ultimately a large part in our heads, our imaginations?

Shame begins with a naked Michael Fassbender walking around his apartment. His body is there. Shamelessly there. In fact, nudity is used by McQueen sparingly, and it is most strikingly used in apparently non-sexual contexts. Brandon is taking an early morning leak, and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is revealed having a shower. Sex is only part of what we do with our bodies, what our bodies are for.

Throughout the film, sex is displayed in lots of different ways, but there is one consistent stylistic decision. Love is a long shot; sex is a montage. Love, intimacy and sentiment are provided with long, lingering, baffled gazes, whereas sex is put together and taken apart, expressionistic, disjointed, bits and bobs. A face of a loved one, a moment of revelation, an intimate conversation, all of these play out in long continuous shots. Even the protracted run through New York takes place in the conspicuous absence of sex. The orgy, the trysts, the glances, the seduction are fragmented, depending upon elision; there is a definite loss of self in the process. The one moment when sex threatens to gain a sense of continuity, as Brandon attempts a deeper relationship with a co-worker played by Nicole Beharie, he is unable to perform. The sex he replaces it with is an act of mimicry. Out for a nocturnal prowl a few nights previously, he has spotted a woman being taken from behind against the glass of a window. Filing it away under ‘things I must try’, it is the scene he immediately replaces his emotions with. As if in order to ‘perform’, he has to be performing. There is something funny to this, as there is something tragic about his sudden yen for self-destruction, provoking a beating from a jealous boyfriend, and then roaming the night for more danger.

Bruised and battered, and refused entry into a nightclub (one feels Brandon has form and this is not the first night he has decided to try and destroy himself publicly), he lurches across the street to a convenient gay club. For some this has been problematic, in that it seems to position gay sex as something degrading, the final circle of hell if you will. However, I think this is a misreading. To begin with, Brandon seems to know the club fairly well, and knows exactly what he was looking for. Nor does it come as a particular surprise that Brandon would be opportunistically bisexual. He hasn’t exactly been worshipping at the shrine of woman. Judging purely on screen time, the closest relationship he has is with his own hand. And finally, the gay club is not the climactic moment. That will be provided by a ménage-a-trois, in which, again as a result mainly of the editing, it will become increasingly difficult to see when Brandon ends and other people begin.

In the end, Shame is a film which dares to take sex seriously, and yet there is a sense that sex is really not the subject here. Just as in Hunger (2008), McQueen’s interest is in observing a body in crisis, but the body belongs to a person and that person cannot (however much they might wish it) be reduced to the body. Brandon’s anger and rejection of Sissy is the root of the shame of the title. The sex is destructive not in itself but in what it excludes, the possibilities of mature relationships. Brandon is ultimately a lonely man riven with self-hate, whose contact with a world of which he seems to be highly suspicious has to be taken at one remove. This is a man who cleans the toilet before he masturbates. McQueen and Fassbender have once more produced a deeply unsettling but absolutely fascinating character piece.

This Alternate Take was published on February 05, 2012.

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