The Shame of the New

Tuesday October 11th 2011

When The Hangover Part II came out earlier this year, a lot of people (and critics) were so blindsided by its use of full frontal male nudity that they could talk of little else. It was hardly surprising given that the MPAA’s draconian attitude to nudity on screen continues to impose a taboo on straightforward depictions of the human body, creating an international audience largely desensitised to violence and horror but physically shocked by the sight of an adult male’s penis.

Much the same thing appears to be happening to Shame, which — since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last month — seems to have acquired the alternate title ‘Michael Fassbender Penis Movie’ in large sections of the press. He does indeed go full frontal in the film, but not in the sort of Brüno-esque crotch-to-the-camera close-up manner that the hype might have you believe. Like most aspects of the film Fassbender’s nudity is naturalistic and vital, and it’s actually very sparingly employed. In a movie that focuses solely on one man’s self-destructive addiction to sex, it’s remarkable that there are only one or two true sex scenes.

Instead, the film wallows in the mundane to-ings and fro-ings of Fassbender’s perpetually distracted Brandon, whose highflying but nondescript Wall Street career fuels his insatiable sexual compulsion. If there’s a plot it’s the sudden introduction of his sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) into the proceedings, but don’t go expecting any ‘we’re gonna turn your life around!’ self-help montages: this is bleak, bleak stuff and it only gets bleaker as Cissy starts getting under Brandon’s skin.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan give stupid-good performances (if only there was a way to transplant all of the latter’s An Education accolades onto this far superior turn) and director Steve McQueen seems to have fine-tuned his ability to make silence physically painful even further since Hunger.

It’ll be interesting to see what the BBFC make of the film, because in truth there’s probably only thirty seconds or so of actual content keeping Shame out of the 15 category. Tonally however, it’s bold, ambiguous and unnerving, which may well affect their decision. Of course, it’s precisely this tone that makes the film work as well as it does, and ensures that Fassbender’s thousand-yard stare will stay with you long after you’ve recovered from the shock of seeing his genitalia.

In short, my most anticipated film of the LFF is already my favourite.