Steve McQueen's Shame (2011) is an opaque film: the only window you have into the main character is through his facial expressions. Fassbender's performance carries the film throughout, which, despite having a sparse script, carries a convincing emotional weight. His breakdown at the end of the film is a masterwork of non-verbal communication - all aspiring actors should see it.
Shame is ostensibly a film about sexual addiction, but really, it's a film about trauma. Trauma is something the film alludes to, but never reveals. Michael's lived experience is the past rippling forward into the present, and although it's never explained why he is the way he is, his brokenness is unstoppable - the ending of the film, deliberately ambiguous, makes it unclear whether or not his sister's failed suicide will spur an inner change in him.
As a narrative, Shame is an exercise in minimalism - taking the very basic contours of a story, taking the minimal amount of dialogue, exposition (even events), and drawing something whole. Whether or not it succeeds as a narrative is almost beside the point - it's really just an examination of a single individual: Michael, the sex-addicted protagonist whose compulsions push him away from everyone that he might care about.
The film traffics in metaphor, and the central scene is the most important: at the film's first climax, Michael, finally about to achieve true intimacy in the context of a fledgling relationship, finds himself unable to perform. Some time later, in the same room, he is shown having sex with a prostitute without any difficulty. So begins the beginning of his downward spiral.
This scene struck with me because it's an exposition of man at his most vulnerable. Shame, fear, insecurity - all these monsters roaming below the surface brought to the fore in a single critical moment. The erection as metaphor is not lost on the viewer, and plays heavily in Beta Male, both on the literal and metaphorical level.
Shame is a beautiful film, and a moving one.
In conclusion: four out of five stars.
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Bret Easton Ellis