Steve McQueen’s Shame is the latest entry in what we’ll call the sad sex subgenre. In a sad sex film, partners don’t enjoy each other’s flesh, they rut. They bump uglies. They shudder. Their faces evince no enjoyment as their bodies try to make contact. Sometimes they cry during orgasm. Sex for the protagonists of these types of films is not merely unpleasant or temporarily uncomfortable, but rather a manifestation of their emotional infertility, an existential scream from the void. Their emptiness is exacerbated by the fact that they cannot seem to make physical contact with another human.
The sad sex movie has been in vogue at least since 1972, when Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider spent those melancholy late afternoons in that barren Paris apartment, and has found subsequent expression in morose anti-erotic treats such as Louis Malle’s Damage, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy—each of which was met with an equal mixture of fascination and skepticism upon release, not to mention a whiff of scandal. Sad sex is slightly more accessible than violent sex (Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, for instance, falls outside the purview, as it’s a trickier take on the liberation of taboo); it grants instant import to what would otherwise be merely titillating. It has made its way into mainstream art-house fare, notably giving memorable charges to otherwise palatable middlebrow titles like The Wings of the Dove (see Helena Bonham Carter thrusting and weeping naked!), Monster’s Ball (watch a stripped Halle Berry beg to be fucked after her son dies!), and even Spielberg’s Munich (witness Eric Bana’s Mossad macho man cumming and crying while haunted by the assassination of Israeli Olympians!). Even this fall’s Melancholia offered the sight of Kirsten Dunst mounting a stranger on her wedding night as a way of working out her cosmic depression. All of these scenes are meant to do one thing: communicate to the viewer that a body in the throes of bad, sad sex is just about the most pitiable thing you could ever imagine. Read Michael Koresky’s review of Shame.