The 'Shame' Syndrome: Male Angst Turns a Skin Flick Into an Art Flick

Empty sex on film gets called art, not porn, only when it focuses on brooding men

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Fox Searchlight

Shame has lots of sex and a fair number of breasts and even a penis or two, but it's not pornography. That's in part because pornography (at least in its straight male iterations) is a genre obsessed, as Linda Williams writes in her study Hard Core, with "visual evidence of female pleasure." Pornography has a (prurient, of course!) desire to know how women feel. It fetishizes and commodifies not only female bodies, but also female desires and female orgasms. What women think and what women feel is vitally important to porn. Steve McQueen's acclaimed new film Shame, on the other hand, is obsessed not with female pleasure but with male angst. Thus it gets called art, and has been granted the NC-17 rating and glowing reviews to prove it.

Male angst, disavowed female bodies, and art have all been an intimate ménage at least since Hamlet sent Ophelia to the nunnery, madness, and death. The trope hasn't worn out its welcome, though. Last Tango in Paris transmogrified steamy sex into meaningful art through the alchemy of Marlon Brando's method torment. More recently, the James Bond franchise reinvigorated itself critically as well as commercially by giving Daniel Craig a dead girlfriend to motivate his vengeful violence and empty womanizing. The American aesthetically justifies its female-full-frontal fan service and dopey genre plot by assuring us that George Clooney is really suffering. And, shifting mediums, Chester Brown's comic Paying For It presents scene after scene of sex as serious art by focusing exclusively on the male protagonist's inner life.

To be fair, Shame is art that is heavily influenced by porn. Even granted that Brandon (Michael Fassbender) has movie-star good looks and that he appears to pull down a decent salary, the readiness with which women are willing to abase themselves on the altar of his sex addiction remains impressively improbable. Peter North himself would raise an eyebrow (or whatever) at the bevy of bodies that get all lusty when Brandon glances at them across a crowded train, or correctly identifies their eye color at a bar, or pours sugar in his coffee in their presence, or (in the crudest advance in a film full of crude advances) just sticks his hand under their skirt. Brandon pays for sex too, but you do start to wonder why he bothers when all he's got to do is look at the object of his desire with that slightly furrowed brow and she'll immediately fall into his lap in whatever position he requires. As in porn, too, the majority of women receive little in the way of character development. They're just a clinical, often tedious, collection of bodies and positions—rear entry here, bare chest and an improbably enthusiastic come-on there, and, towards the end, an extended three-way that is basically indistinguishable from soft-core except that the production values are higher.

Of course, Brandon isn't really enjoying his Dionysian lifestyle, anymore than we in the audience are supposed to enjoy watching three attractive actors have sex. No, no, no. This isn't about the fan service, people. It's about the human drama. And the guarantor of the human drama is precisely that the surface sex is disavowed; there is assumed to be real emotion and deep feeling precisely as long as there is no connection between the participants. And so when Brandon starts to get too close to coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), he ends up with erectile dysfunction; when his sister (Carey Mulligan) suggests the two of them need to be closer, he rushes out to have anonymous sex with (gasp!) another man—clearly the ultimate degradation. Brandon's compulsive sex—whether with willing women, prostitutes, his computer, men, or (perhaps most meaningfully) with his own two hands—is validated precisely because it is solipsistic. Some hideous pain in his past has made him incapable of love—and simultaneously capable of taking his place at the center of a serious film.

Shame is, indeed, a perfect distillation of the suffering-guy archetype. Brandon is not so much wounded as a wound. There's really no there to him other than the fact that he's damaged. He's not charming, or funny, or thoughtful. When he takes a woman out to dinner he woos her by telling her that his longest-ever relationship was four months; his idea of witty repartee is telling a stranger he's just met how he wants to stick his tongue in her. Even the tried-and-true cinematic staple of giving him a best friend who is even more boorish than he is can't change the fact that besides his compulsive sex and flagrant pain, Brandon is utterly uninteresting. Not unlike a porn star, except that the money shots are tears.

The person who elicits those tears most consistently is Brandon's aforementioned sister. Her name, if you can believe it, is Sissy, as if the filmmakers wanted to underscore that she's only in the movie at all in her capacity as sibling. She's onscreen not because we care about her feelings (that's for porn, remember?) but because she can make Brandon react. She finds him masturbating and he gets angry; she slides into bed with him for warmth and he gets angry; she sings a torch song with great feeling and he weeps quietly …and, finally, inevitably, she becomes the red meat of emotional catharsis, allowing him to weep copiously.

As I am far from the first to notice, the magic of film in a lot of ways is the voyeurism; the ability to see the hidden truth, whether it be women's pleasure or men's torment. In porn, repetitively, decade after decade, women moan to let us possess the depths of their pleasure. And in art, for just about as long, emotionally distant men moan a little bit to let us possess the depths of their pain. Together they are a matched pair of exculpatory slogans: she wants it, he doesn't. The secret joys and secret sorrows are revealed; gaze on them and be elevated.

The structural similarities are such that it would be easy to dismiss Shame as a kind of porn. But I think that would be unfair to porn. Typical straight male pornography objectifies women, but at least it is invested in the object that it's made. It's not an accident that female porn stars earn more than male porn stars. The industry is about the women, which isn't liberating or awesome or transgressive, but is at least an acknowledgement of their existence. Wounded-male art films, on the other hand, objectify women and then forget they're there. Women in Shame are only tangentially figures of lust; primarily they're emotional furniture, carefully arranged about the screen to help Brandon climb to his next orgasmic crescendo of self-pity. We're supposed to condemn his emptiness, obviously—but the condemnation become hollow when you realize that that emptiness is the main thing that keeps the film from being direct-to-video.