January 5, 2014 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Revisiting ‘Shame’
Michael Fassbender in 'Shame.' (Still courtesy Fox Searchlight)

Michael Fassbender in ‘Shame.’ (Still courtesy Fox Searchlight)

Sometimes life gets so busy, one doesn’t have time to do even the minor things one wants. For me, the holiday break was a good time to catch up on some movies I’d been wanting to see.

One was the 2011 British drama “Shame,” Steve McQueen’s sobering and brilliant tale of sexual addiction in modern-day New York. I’ll be totally honest — while the buzz the film got during award season in 2012 got my attention, my interest was also piqued by reports of star Michael Fassbender’s full-frontal nude scenes. He’s hot, I’m gay — what can I say?

The film was truly great — if you haven’t seen it, it’s by all means recommended. But a couple things about it bothered me. Now that so much time has passed since it was in theaters, I feel they’re safe (spoiler alert!) to discuss.

First, the film is a textbook example of one of the frustrations of working in LGBT media. A huge part of my job, obviously, is parsing the endless deluge of movies, TV shows, recordings, theatrical productions, books and more that are released with LGBT content. Of course it’s humanly impossible to get to everything (I have a great stable of freelancers who help), but it’s not uncommon for a film like this to come along without any indication it has gay content — zero pitches from publicists, nothing indicating gay content in the trailer and very limited availability (most major theater chains don’t show NC-17-rated films).

Granted, it’s a relatively minor (and fleeting) scene, but it’s enough to warrant the “of LGBT interest” tag, Fassbender’s nude scenes notwithstanding.

The scene itself — in which Fassbender’s ostensibly straight character Brandon gets blown by a guy in a gay sex club — raises a bounty of questions: does Brandon have a few percentage points of bisexuality in his DNA? Is he so horny and desperate (perhaps more likely considering the central theme of the film) that having just been denied admittance in a straight club, he resorts to the gay bathhouse across the street? Or are the filmmakers implying the character is so fucked up, he’ll even resort to gay fellatio, as if that’s the apex of sexual depravity? Placed near the end of the film as Brandon’s sexual addiction reaches fever-pitch intensity, that’s likely at least part of what writers Steve McQueen (who also directed) and Abi Morgan are floating.

It’s impossible to pin them down on it — the film (and this is a big part of its brilliance) leaves just the right amount of information opaque and thus open to interpretation. In stark contrast with the raw sex scenes, thematically “Shame” never hits you over the head.

I’ll leave it to the psychologists to discuss the likelihood of a straight person being so engulfed in the throes of sexual addiction he or she would engage in a sexual act that conflicts with their sexual orientation. I have no idea how often such things happen in the real world.

That McQueen’s highly effective film — the lead performances by Fassbender and a perfectly cast Carey Mulligan alone make it worth seeing — gives us so much to ponder is but one indication of its greatness.

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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