Why would I strongly recommend Shame? Principally because it is one of the most complete pictures of sexuality that I've seen on film. But let's back up a little…
When the film hit the festival circuit, then cinemas, it was all everyone in my crowd was talking about. Have you seen it? What did you think? The clamour was all the more intense because of the hometown excitement about Australia's Emile Sherman being one of the producers and because the key collaborators – artist/director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and leading man Michael Fassbender – had already convincingly proven their worth in Hunger. What put me off seeing Shame, though, was that the main message flowing out of all the chatter was that it was about a man addicted to sex and it was very confronting. I imagined it would consist of frenzied misogyny-fuelled sex that was verging on the non-consensual and it appealed about as much as spending 100 minutes with a man who makes a habit of getting boozed up on Friday and Saturday nights and king hitting people who happen to be in his line of sight.
Complex sex on screen
The film is nothing like I had expected. I found it to be an exceptional exploration of how the sex that occurs between two people is just one part of something much bigger, more complex, often mystifying and intensely personal. Films are awash with coupling but the framework is usually the relationship between the two people. It seems little acknowledged on cinema screens that sexual desire and sexual behaviour is multi-faceted, often as deeply troubling as it is satisfying, and intensely personal. Shame doesn't look at; it looks from the inside out.
The film is hardcore
Brandon (Fassbender), clearly a loner who is in pain, has a very big sexual appetite and has no intention of starving himself. Some viewers might find this obsession with sex confronting but I kept recalling what is often said about mental illness: most people will experience it at sometime. And that's irrespective of gender. What I found confronting wasn't the sexual content – it was the film's bold engagement with the challenge of human connection on a very deep level, including sexual connection.
Its inspiration is surprising
Because Shame is so associated with Fassbender and McQueen I remember feeling surprise when I learned that McQueen's co-writer was film/theatre writer Abi Morgan, whose credits include The Iron Lady and Brick Lane. What surprised me the most – but also didn't, given what I've just said – is that she provided the spark that gave birth to Brandon. She wanted to write about a man who was looking for sexual attention right to his dying day, she told McQueen during a “blind date” set up by their agents. Why? Because some time earlier, when visiting a friend with only a few hours to live, she had been “shocked” to witness how important it was for this man to get the attention of the nurses. She says so here in a fascinating half-hour address and career recap.
The moral of this story is, see Shame, no matter what you've heard about it.