‘Shame’ Shocks With Pitiless, NC-17 Sex

British director Steve McQueen's drama takes a piercing, pitiless look at the culture of sexual excess in Western society

The buzz in Toronto has been intense around “Shame,” an NC-17 movie by British director Steve McQueen that takes a piercing, pitiless look at the culture of sexual excess in Western society.

The buzz has been partly because Michael Fassbender just won best actor at the Venice Film Festival for his portrayal of a man in the grip of sexual addiction. But also because Fox Searchlight just acquired the movie and has decided to release the movie as is, x-rating and all.

At a screening on Sunday at the Princess Wales theater, the room was packed and tickets impossible to come by. Film critics from Elvis Mitchell to Lou Lumenick crowded in, as did actor James Franco, director Ivan Reitman and motion picture academy co-president Dawn Hudson.

Everyone (including me) wanted to see what the NC-17 was all about.

And it’s a tough sit. The movie is not sexual, per se, though there is a fair amount of screwing up against plate glass windows in Manhattan skyscrapers. (And in broad daylight!)

The sexiest scenes are fully clothed, of Fassbender staring down a woman in the New York subway, nearly bringing her to orgasm with the unmistakeable message in his eyes.

But the actual scenes of intercourse are cold and soulless, which is McQueen’s point. Fassbender is a gorgeous, sculpted man with hollow nothing on the inside. He cannot connect to anything in his life – not a beautiful woman on a date, not his troubled sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, not his friends from work.

All he knows how to do is seek relief in sexual activity – on the Internet mostly, but also with hookers and eventually with absolutely anyone and anything.

There is frontal nudity of every kind (his and hers), but it is not so impactful. What is impactful is Fassbender finally stripped to his core, crumpled in the rain on a black Manhattan street. Alone, and empty.

Canvassing people after the film, I found a lot of men who found the film very difficult to watch. The conensus seemed to be that the film exposed too fully male obsession. Some women I talked to had philosophical objections though they didn’t find it as discomfiting as men.

McQueen, a big, burly Brit, was visibly nervous at the q and a after the film.

“I wanted to make a love story and put down the gun,” he said to a question about why he made the film. “There’s so much porn on the Internet. It’s the whole idea of how accessible sexual images are – two clicks and you’re in – and it (the movie) just snowballed from there.”

He added: “I wanted the character to be in a place of excess, and access.”

Fassbender, who was also at the screening, said he came to understand that sexual addiction is very real. “The mental health board does not classify it as an illness .But for me, you realize it’s a pattern and you can’t stop. Your work is affected, your relationships are affected.”

As for the nudity, which he displays apparently effortlessly, was “embarrassing, really,” he said. “But I didn’t want to let Steve down. At the beginning you feel self-conscious, but at the end I was running around the apartment naked.”