BRIT PICK: Shame (2011)

Shame (UK, 2011)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie

Ever since Paul Verhoeven torched his career with Showgirls, the NC-17 rating has been forever associated with soft-core porn. While in Britain 18-certificate films earn their rating and can still be box-office hits (like Dredd 3D), in America the NC-17 is seen as a last resort if a film cannot be cut to get an R rating - and if it doesn't get that R rating, the chances are that no-one will pay to see it.
At this point I could launch into a lecture about the perceived infantilism of both the MPAA and the movie-going public; if you want that argument presented coherently and without a hint of snobbery, go and watch This Film Is Not Yet Rated. All I will say is that it is a great... pity that so few people got to see Shame the first time round. Like Showgirls it is so unashamedly explicit that only the highest rating could have sufficed. But while Verhoeven's film has little between its ears other than Elizabeth Berkley's cleavage, this is a bold and powerful work which cements Steve McQueen as a director and Michael Fassbender as a truly great actor.
Being a film about sex which works hard to turn its audience off, the natural reference point for Shame would be Eyes Wide Shut. Both films have main characters who are urbane, middle-class and seemingly confident, and both Stanley Kubrick and Steve McQueen are exceptional visual craftsmen. In each case we are introduced to a glossy world surrounded on all sides by wealth and success, until an element is introduced which throws the central character's life off-course: in Kubrick's case, it is the wife confessing to adultery, in McQueen's, the arrival of the wayward sister.
If you wanted to stretch the comparison, you could make the argument that both films are about depicting a form of sexual jealousy. In Kubrick's case, he wanted to explore the destructive effect that jealousy and adultery can have on relationships, reducing sexual satisfaction down to something that is almost banal, to hammer home how self-defeating these desires can be. Shame, on the other hand, depicts jealousy more abstractly, with Brandon's longing for satisfaction not being borne out of revenge.
It is interesting to note that cinematic attitudes towards nymphomania are often the complete opposite to attitudes in wider Western culture. Films like Horrible Bosses depict female nymphomania as something humorous or even attractive, while in wider society female promiscuity and sexual confidence is frowned upon, to the point where the way that women dress is often used (wrongfully) to justify violence against them. Conversely, male promiscuity in society is almost something to boast about, and yet depictions of promiscuity on film are pretty negative outside of gross-out comedies.
While it does correspond to these wider trends, at least to some degree, there can be no denying the power of Shame in its depiction of sex addiction. The film is confident enough to avoid romanticising or excusing the lifestyle of its central character; while we are meant to envy Brandon's wealth or success, we are never expected to like him, let alone emulate him. Over the course of the film we see Brandon's lifestyle slowly overtaking the veil of ignorance that surrounds it. He goes from seeming in control to pure, visceral desperation until an emotional break pulls him back from the edge.
Brandon's addiction is characterised by what Sigmund Freud called a "death drive" - commonly known as thanatos, after the Greek personification of Death. Put simply, our main character is compelled to engage in behaviour which is risky, shameful and ultimately self-destructive. Brandon is searching for the fleeting or unobtainable thrill that is expressed in sexual ecstasy, and the more compulsive he becomes in his search, the further from his goal he gets. The petit mort or orgasm that the character experiences is a microcosm of his state, a fleeting glimpse of his ultimate fate, something which is enticing yet terrifying, preventable yet inevitable.
Shame spends a lot of its running time showing how distant Brandon is from the people around him. His desire for sexual satisfaction is matched by an inability or unwillingness to be intimate: he has few friends, doesn't return his sister's calls, and cuts straight to the chase when he and his boss go out on the pull. While the latter makes a fool of himself with bad dancing and corny chat-up lines, Brandon bides his time and eventually gets what he wants - or at least, what he wants right then.
This idea is reinforced by the conversation in the restaurant between Brandon and Mariane. Having arrived late and ordered their food, the two enter into a discussion about marriage, and Mariane spots an elderly couple on the other side of the restaurant, sitting silently. She postulates that they are not talking because they know each other so well that there is no need to say anything; Brandon retorts that they are bored and have simply run out of things to say. It's a lovely microcosm of Brandon's character, displaying his contempt for connection thinly disguised by wit and charm.
The film also touches on the way that the internet has changed sexual relationships. It takes the basic thesis of The Social Network (that online networking has made us more atomistic) and advances the idea that the instant gratification of online porn has diminished the emphasis we place on marriage and monogamy. Brandon can easily get aroused when the outcome is certain, whether online or in the gay club, but when he is asked to be intimate and personable in the film's only sexy scene, he can only go so far before his insecurities are exposed. The film doesn't argue that the internet is a probable cause for Brandon's afflictions, but it certainly isn't helping matters.
The film is held together by the stunning performance of Michael Fassbender, who first came to attention through his previous work with McQueen in Hunger. Fassbender is deeply charismatic but has a real sadness to him: his deep blue eyes slowly wander in every conversation, searching desperately for acceptance while trying to keep up a façade. He gets some good support from Carey Mulligan, who delivers despite having less to work with than she did in Drive. Her slow rendition of 'New York, New York', which moves Brandon to tears, is quite remarkable.
If you wanted a sound-byte to encapsulate Shame, you might say that it does for sex addiction what Requiem for a Dream did for drug addiction, depicting a destructive force in graphic detail. But this analogy would be misplaced, since McQueen is interested in self-annihilation while Darren Aronofsky also concentrates on existential despair. It also illuminates the problem with Shame, namely that for all its graphic content, it doesn't go quite far enough.
In Requiem for a Dream, the experience was completely unhinged: the rapid editing, grim storyline and the lengths to which the characters were degraded made it painful to sit through, for all the right reasons. We genuinely got the sense of being in the same spiral as the characters, not knowing where we would end up and coming out feeling depressed but lucky to be alive. Shame has moments where it feels like this, but it also feels like a rigged experiment, perhaps reflecting McQueen's background in visual art. Despite an ambiguous ending and the shock of Sissie's fate, it still feels a little too choreographed or predetermined to completely knock us for six. 
Shame is a bold and intriguing second effort from McQueen with a stunning central performance by Fassbender. It offers audiences a lot to chew on without coming across as a message movie, keeping us focussed on the disintegration of the characters. It is slightly compromised by its sense of distance, and it lacks the level of terrifying desperation offered by Requiem for a Dream. But it's still highly recommended as a work of great power and emotional intelligence.