*In Steve McQueen's latest film Shame, the sex scenes do not feel frivolous or passionate. Sex in this movie cannot really be equated with love-making, and it certainly is not the fuel for or byproduct of any romance. Instead, it feels violently and strangely ascetic, as if sex, despite its normal linkage with immediate gratification, were a negating act and its repetition an attempt at clarifying the hollowness that was discovered in previous iterations. Whereas sex provides escapism for the characters in Shame, the sexual acts are confrontational for the viewers, and our response is intensely visceral: we oscillate between coiling away and staring back intensely. One moment we are sympathetic, perhaps even empathetic, and the next we are utterly disgusted. This is a movie that is concerned with the psychosis of human nature, the reality of how we unravel as we run away from ourselves.
*Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a 30-something year old working in New York City. He is unexpressive and piercingly cool, and his life is manicured like the urbane, cosmopolitan version of Pleasantville - if not for his raging sexual needs, which play out like a crack addiction.
*His younger sister, Sissy, played by a haunting and alluring Carey Mulligan, comes to live with him, which disrupts the patterns of his life. Her emotions constantly spill out, whereas his emotions are obscured by the motions of his daily life. She's wrecked and she knows it; he represses his wreckage and tries to wash it all away, through sex, through classical music, through pornography.
*The reason why this movie felt so ascetic, and at times, even antiseptic is not because of the subject matter. In fact, the subject matter makes the asceticism all the more ironic. After all, asceticism is tby definition abstention from worldly and sensual pleasures, and Brandon's "indulgences" are extreme and untempered. But the end-goal of both religious asceticism and Brandon's sexual activities , no matter the derangement of the means, is similar: mind-body transformation and a peace of mind, which some might call sanity. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote an essay called "What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?" in his book On the Genealogy of Morals in which he discusses the paradoxical nature of asceticism and ascribes it to the category of "Christian decadence." According to Nietzsche, asceticism is a mechanism used to preserve life, to prevent perishing from the pain of life. There's one scene in the movie where Brandon, after a tumultuous night that ends in tragedy, is at the edge of a dock, soaked in rain, fallen on his knees, crying out in anguish. This is one of the most emotive scenes in the movie on his part, and it evokes images of The Scream by Edvard Munch, or that one scene in Little Miss Sunshine when the Nietzsche-obsessed brother discovers he is color-blind and screams his head off in a ditch on the side of the freeway. Whatever the associations, it's a scene that embodies both the raw agony and the sigh of relief that follows a C-section pregnancy - at least that's what it feels like. I mean that seriously.
*The attempts to anesthetize and antisepticize that precede this release reminded me of the emotional tenor that resonates through the plot lines of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (the novel forms of both). Unlikely connections, but the fundamental idea of not being able to face oneself, or not knowing what to do with oneself - an idea that poses a problem without an answer - is present in all three. You find yourself in a helpless body with a mind of its own or a mind out of control; as a result, the characters are more sympathetic and relatable than one might think a sex addict and a wrist-slitting, homeless jazz singer would be. But what propels Shame forward more than anything else are the scenes that are not shown and the words that are not spoken, the ones that are understood but are too violent, too unbearably real to be plotted out onscreen. And somehow, Steve McQueen conveys these absences impeccably, in a way that is more striking and more graphic than any of the sex scenes in the movie itself.