I saw Shame a couple of weeks ago with my homie Sarah Jaffe…and, on the real, I wanted to check out the flick because I wanted to see Michael Fassbender’s full frontal nudity. (And, considering how quick the box-office attendant was asking for photo IDs for this NC-17 flick, I guess quite a few under-17 others were trying to see the younger Magneto’s full frontal nudity, too.)
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT after the jump.
Synopsis: Fassbender plays Brandon, a white, handsome, successful office-working something-or-other (the film never states what he does for a living or where he works) living the upscale–and rather white–NYC life. Brandon also has a sexual addiction, which McQueen frames as Brandon lacking any emotional connections and/or the ability to go about forming healthy ones–even with his own sister–in tandem with a series of sexual behaviors: Brandon inviting and paying female sex workers of various races and ethnicities; constantly masturbating (you first see him jerking off in his shower, and later he’s shown doing it in his office bathroom; and his sister catches him jerking off in a toilet); getting paranoid about the IT department talking about his hard drive, only to have his boss call him into the office about the porn found on it (though the boss blames Brandon’s intern for it, not Brandon); hooking up with a white woman at a bar that his married boss initially tried to pick up; his picking up another white woman at a random bar and, after some consensual fingering, puts his fingers under her white boyfriend’s nose to sniff (which leads to the boyfriend assaulting Brandon); after the assault, Brandon following a racially ambiguous male sex worker into the backroom of a gay bar, where he kisses the sex worker and gets a blowjob; participating in a threesome with two female sex workers, portrayed by white burlesquer DeeDee Luxe and Asian burlesque star Calamity Chang (both links NSFW).
When Brandon attempts to form a healthy romantic connection–after his sister busts him masturbating into the toilet–he throws out his massive porn collection and a couple of sex toys and approaches Marianne (American Violet‘s Nicole Beharie), who works at his office. She is one of the few Black people (let alone people of color) at the firm. They go on a date:
Then Brandon invites Marianne for an afternoon tryst at a hotel. Hepped up on a line of cocaine and the sheer excitement at this opportunity to prove he’s conquered his sexual addiction by himself, Marianne and he engage in some foreplay, only for Brandon not be able to get erect. Ashamed, he sends Marianne away and later has penetrative sex with a sex worker, a white woman, in the same room.
All of this is to give context to this radio interview excerpt between film critic Elvis Mitchell and McQueen. Towards the end of the interview, McQueen says this about casting Beharie as Brandon’s love interest (unfortunately, KCRW doesn’t have a full transcript of the interview):
Elvis Mitchell: I found interesting, too…there are women in the film and the way you sort of develop what the women do from Brandon. They really are fleshly in a way that he is not. I mean, they’re sort of in touch with their bodies in terms of living in the world in a way he is not: both his sister and the woman he courts at the office want to use their bodies for a different thing than he does.
Steve McQueen: …of course, Marianne–she, of course, is played by Nicole Beharie–I like Marianne. She’s sort of willing to try to make something out of something, which may not be a good thing to do. But she wants to take a chance.
EM: She’s also the grown-up in the movie. She represents looking for a future, which neither Brandon or Sissy are capable of doing. They’re both about the immediate. I felt it was interesting to make the one African American woman in the movie, the one person of color, [as] the person looking for a future rather than trying to find a momentary satisfaction. Even [Brandon's] boss is like that–a person who wants to be immediately gratified.
SM: That’s interesting. [Laughs] I mean, other people saying to me when I came to America and I wanted to cast [Beharie]. Because when I came to research the movie, of all the people but for this one guy–I think he was from somewhere in South America–were white who were dealing with sex addiction. I suppose it’s a different kind of situation, I’d imagine, where you’d find one kind of ethnicity. But I found it fascinating.
But when it came to the workplace it was as you see it. It was one Black person. It was like, “Wow, that’s kind of interesting.” And this girl could be Brandon’s girlfriend. But what was interesting was there was all kinds of objections about this, of saying, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen there. That wouldn’t exist.” I said, “What, I don’t exist?” It was a very odd thing, having these conversations about having a love interest that was a Black woman with Brandon. It was interesting, that. It was fascinating, that.
But then, what also fascinates me is you have a lot of white American filmmakers who never cast a Black person in their movies and they made quite a few movies. How can you avoid that? That’s kind of weird. It’s like walking around with blindfolds on. How can you make movies in this country–and consistently make movies–and not cast Black characters in the main leads? I mean, I made two movies–and they’re art films–and the feature film are 90 percent white and my art films are 90 percent Black. There’s no distinguishing the two; it’s just one thing–it’s not “art” or “film.” That’s how it is.
EM: I waited fifty years for someone to say that.
What Sarah and I chatted about over post-movie brunch is that we really appreciated McQueen’s decision to cast Beharie as Brandon’s love interest. As Mitchell observes, Marianne is an adult, a woman with her own relationship loose ends (she tells Brandon she’s separated, not divorced) and healthy sexual curiosity and appetite (she agrees to the tryst; she eagerly and sensuously kiss Brandon back as they’re hiding behind a patterned glass partition at the office). Brandon knows, regardless of his condition, he has to come correct with Marianne; his frozen face as he watches her through the window of the restaurant of their first date displays his terror. Even in the above clip, Marianne holds her own flirting with Brandon. More importantly, Marianne and Brandon are drawn to each other in the film because they’re interested in each other, not as a Very Special Episode of Interracial Dating in America. Unfortunately, their relationship is a very short one due to Brandon’s addiction — and you never see Marianne again after she leaves the hotel.
Yet, Sarah and I gave gasface to McQueen framing Brandon having sex with another man and a three-way to signify Brandon “hitting rock bottom.” Why, we rhetorically asked, does homosexuality and consensual multiple partners — neither of which are really respected in US society — have to be the film’s shorthand for “sexual depravity”? McQueen could have shown Brandon’s nadir when the boyfriend assaulted him. To show Brandon engaged with the partners as a sign his utter debasement smells of homophobia and anti-polyamory.
Is Shame worth seeing? If the frisson of finally seeing an NC-17 film (“Woohoo! Grown-ass flick!”) making it to your movie theater is worth the price of admission, then … well, maybe. But, like all frissons, it won’t last long. If you want to see an interracial couple that’s a couple and not a Big Social Statement a la Something New, then…well, maybe. The relationship is short-lived. But just to see Michael Fassbender’s penis? You’ll be wildly disappointed because you’re not going to see it for very long at all.
H/t to Shadow and Act
Photo credit: Filmofilia
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