The opening weekend of Steve McQueen’s latest film, ‘Shame’ in Ottawa was sparsely attended. Anyone expecting erotic titillation likely demanded a refund.
Ontario’s 18A rating reflects the classification it has been given in other countries where it’s been released, because of “nudity, sexual content”.
I’ve seen it twice. The first viewing let the full force of McQueen’s vision engulf me. The second allowed me to understand the complexity of his achievement. It’s a magnificent masterpiece - conceived, crafted, directed, performed and edited with care and passion - every detail of every scene works, layer upon layer.
In the women’s toilets I overheard someone ask: “But what was the point?” Oh, lady, I thought, go watch Spielberg if you want your movie messages delivered with a 2-by-4.
So far, none of the reviewers that I’ve read on ‘Shame’ have decoded oblique clues about Brandon and Sissy, siblings with a murky past.
They are survivors - barely - of horrific child abuse. McQueen holds up a mirror. For some, his gritty, bleak portrayal of sex addiction stands in for all contemporary addictions - a trendy and repulsive iteration. For others, it’s a thoroughly unsentimental, non-proselytizing and oddly empathetic view of people who have not enjoyed sugared Hollywood versions of childhood.
This is what happens to children who are used and abused by adult members of their own families. They grow up, deeply damaged yet seemingly able to function as productive individuals - on the surface at least.
Brandon is The Man. His addictions are Manly: pornography, masturbation and coitophilia. He enjoys material success and an enviable lifestyle. <
He has the winsome, naturally seductive agility of someone who has learned how to placate, charm, distract, and control others as a primary survival mechanism. When his sister encroaches on his territory, he reacts like a cornered feral creature.
Many reviewers have noted the transgressive nature of Brandon and Sissy’s relationship, without placing it in a context of shared experiences of childhood emotional and physical violation. It’s a volatile issue, one that does not lend itself to facile cinematic treatment.
The combined writing talents of Abi Morgan & McQueen skillfully - at times, tenderly - weave their well-drawn characters in and out of risky situations. The film’s soundtrack is superb - not merely music but also ambient noise, phone mail messages used as jarring voice-overs, and sharp slivers of dialogue that still sting, days later. The major downside to ‘Shame’ is that it contains a vast array of nasty triggers for survivors of sexual assault.
If audience members throw up during some of the scenes, as was the case during the Toronto International Film Festival, it might be prudent for theatres screening it to provide leaflets from appropriate community organizations, judiciously placed in the women’s - and men’s - toilets.