[There are many *SPOILERS* in the text. So please don’t read the article if you haven’t seen Steve McQueen’s Shame and you don’t want my opinion to interfere with your movie experience]
It is always interesting to see how directors treat issues of addiction. The usual route is to start by presenting the effects of addiction on the person. Then something happens and the carefully constructed façade of the character breaks into million pieces. Exposed to her family and/or other social groups (colleagues, friends, students etc.) she is forced to face reality, accept the consequences and go for treatment.
Shame is different in many ways. The protagonist spends his time trying not only to cover up his addiction (for example, when his office computer is found full pornography), but also to push people away. Not that there are many people who want to get close to him. His sister for once is trying to penetrate his personal world and make him realise that he is not leading a healthy life. However, she is as troubled as he, which makes the audience question if there has been an event in their childhood that was deeply disturbing and traumatic.
Interestingly, the only adult in the movie who has seemingly managed to develop strong coping mechanisms is the woman the protagonist goes out on a date with. Despite her recent divorce, she is interested in re-building her personal life and move forward. Even more interestingly, she is an African-American woman, a choice that goes against stereotypes such as the black angry woman or the welfare queen. It is slightly embarrassing to acknowledge that such a choice, together with the interracial element, are progressive, given the fact that this is 2011 and not 1911 (on the other hand, let’s not forget Frida Pinto’s admission that she had to fight to be given a role in Tarsem Sigh’s Immortals, as he didn’t want to cast an Indian actress).
Shame shows both the disturbance that his sister brings to his life, while avoiding any type of catharsis that could also be a short of a “happy ending”. It is hard and cruel and torturing. But like in many cases of addiction, there is no (easy) way out. This is what Steve McQueen keeps pointing out during the whole movie: this man’s life is constructed in such a way that any change can lead to a complete meltdown. It is a matter of social networks: his work, his family. All these elements are controlling his life and coping mechanisms. On the other hand, he can hardly engage in meaningful discussions or connect with people while sober. He is highly successful, but also very restrained. He goes out, gets drunk, has sex, and then the day starts all over again. It is as much a presentation of a vicious cycle of addiction as it is a comment on the affluent yuppies and their (unhealthy) lifestyle.
The protagonists, Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are simply amazing. Whole-heartily committed to their roles, they allow the audience to understand their characters through their actions, decisions and facial expressions. It is truly a pity that they didn’t receive the recognition they deserved by the Academy.
The only issue is maybe the excessive amount of sex scenes, but not for the reason you may think. Seeing a man like Fassbender engage in sex acts can be both a treat and a distraction. They do offer a more realistic experience, while it is implicitly stated that his good looks contributed to his problems (as he could find women more easily). However, it is also pointed out that the protagonist often pays for sex due to his great need and incapacity to connect meaningfully with people. It feels like the director is actively seeking to objectify the protagonist, hence motivating the audience to gain visual pleasure by watching the sexual content. At the end, though, the viewers are left so disgusted that the spectacle becomes grotesque and feels them with guilt for the feelings they previously developed. The movie posses a provocative question: is a handsome sex addict less worthy of sympathy that an ugly one?
My discomfort with the sex scenes is also related to the abundance of magazine covers where they presented the actor as the new leading man, emphasising his sexuality in half-naked steamy photos. This confusing marketing (see: the marketing people acted like they were promoting an India Jones movie) not only could possibly lead the audience to the wrong conclusions about the content of the movie, but may also interfere with their cinematic experience. The bottom line is, this is not a soft-core movie that glorifies sexy rich dudes. It is an artistic film that aims at exploring the torment that sex addicts experience. The sensitivity of this topic, together with the connotations involved in the representation of sex, should have received a more sophisticated marketing approach.
To sump up, Shame is an excellent movie. It treats its topic in a sensitive, yet progressive way and it shows you the pain and agony involved. The fact that there is a parsimony in background information on the characters only enhance the effectiveness of the film. It hints that this is an issue that could be faced by people in similar circumstances and their background story may or may not matter. Even if it does, it is their current struggles that should be addressed. And it is the situation that they have been caught it that brings them shame.
- Movie Review: Shame (2011) (pacejmiller.com)
- Popcorn time! Movie Review – Shame (youarenotlostyouarehere.wordpress.com)
- [Review] Shame (supermarcey.com)