Shame (UK-Canada, 2011)

The emptiness of sex

I first came across Michael Fassbender in Hunger, directed like Shame by Steve McQueen. His performance, as hunger-striker Bobby Sands, was extraordinary. His promise has been cemented in numerous films since ranging from X-Men First Class to Fish Tank (UK-Neth, 2009). His performance in Shame is also brilliant; he reminds me of Daniel Day-Lewis in the way he totally immerses himself into the role.

Shame is very much an actors’ film; Carey Mulligan and Nicole Beharie are also standout. This is not simply because they are required to go ‘out on a limb’ in their portrayal, particularly Fassbender and Mulligan, of emotionally raw behaviour but also as McQueen’s shooting style regularly features long takes with an immobile camera. There are no edits where the actors can hide. These long takes don’t come across as virtuoso but appropriate to the scene where the relationship between the characters is absolutely paramount.

Fassbender plays a sex addict who, when not using porn or prostitutes, is trying to pick up women merely to have sex with. He is incapable of relating to a woman in any other way which leaves him a hollow man. McQueen has stated that he wanted to show that sex addiction is a malaise and not something that can be laddishly celebrated. He certainly succeeds, particularly in the climactic montage of sex with two prostitutes. The close ups of the grinding, with the rapidly edited montage, coupled with Fassbender’s agonised performance, show the sex not merely to be loveless but also empty of any significance. For a film that has a lot of sex in it, I can’t think of a less sexy film except maybe Cronenberg’s Crash, Can-UK, 1996; a tribute to the film-makers’ ability to realise their project.

Well done to Showcase cinemas for programming (in Gildersome)  the film; though there were only about a dozen watching in an opening night showing. It won’t get a positive ‘word of mouth’ from those desiring smut or those after entertainment on a Friday evening. Prime Minister Cameron was wittering last week about how the British film industry should focus on commercial projects thereby demonstrating both his ignorance of the film industry (where ‘nobody knows anything’) and his philistinism. The Tories have never taken film seriously as an art form, maybe because arthouse cinema, when it gets political, tends to criticise the status quo. This criticism doesn’t matter to them when it occurs in galleries or theatres, with their limited audiences, but film potentially can reach much further. However, I doubt that he need worry because of the conservatism of cinema-going audiences, who see film only as entertainment. The arthouse crowd are a minority and many of them will also frequent galleries and theatres. It is vital that films like Shame continue to be made because they broaden the experience of people who like to be challenged.

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