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Venice Film Fest Review: Steve McQueen’s Shame is Graphic, Transgressive, Full Frontal

Venice Film Fest Review: Steve McQueen's Shame is Graphic, Transgressive, Full Frontal

David Gritten reviews Steve McQueen’s Shame from Venice; the film also screens at Telluride Sunday en route to Toronto, where it seeks a brave distributor willing to take on its NC-17 content.

There’s been plenty of talk on this site recently about edgy, transgressive new films. Well, you can certainly add British director Steve McQueen’s Shame to the list.

Screening in competition in Venice today, Shame goes even further out on a limb than McQueen’s feature debut Hunger, about the Irish revolutionary martyr Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in jail. Shame‘s central character is a sex addict, whose exploits are depicted in graphic detail.

Michael Fassbender, who also portrayed Sands, now plays Brandon, a successful thirtysomething Manhattan executive living alone in a luxurious but impersonally furnished apartment. He is obsessed by sexual gratification, and surfs internet porn on his computer at work and his laptop at home. He seduces women in bars, on the subway and in his office.

Though charming and handsome, he lives a furtive, sealed-off existence –until his wayward sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a singer, arrives in an distraught state and begs to stay with him. Her presence is disruptive, not least because it exposes his shame about his addiction.

McQueen and co-screenwriter Abi Morgan (who has scripted the upcoming Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady) stop short of moralizing. Yet New York’s singles bars, dating rituals and sex clubs are portrayed as hellish – quite literally so at one stage, when Brandon embarks on a night of sexual excess that endangers his safety and is clearly rooted in self-hatred.

This is a jolting portrayal of a tough subject. Fassbender has several scenes involving full-frontal nudity and Mulligan has one of her own. The language and the sexual activity is coarse and impersonal. All this leaves a huge question mark over its commercial potential in the US. Presumably it would receive an NC-17 rating, and even liberal American audiences are more likely to be turned off by its explicitness than their European counterparts.

Still, what a gifted filmmaker McQueen is turning out to be. He composes every frame exquisitely, from the tableau-like opening image of Fassbender sprawled in bed looking dead-eyed. There’s an impressive long tracking shot as Brandon runs the length of several city blocks, using the exertion to quell his inner rage. And then there’s a key scene in a club, where Sissy sings “New York, New York” from beginning to end. It’s usually performed in triumphalist mode, but Mulligan, a gifted chanteuse, turns it into a slow, mournful blues. For once, Brandon shows emotion, wiping away a tear; the song becomes a comment on the life that imprisons him.

Nicholas Ray buffs got a treat today with the screening of the restored version of his 1970s experimental film We Can’t Go Home Again. He made it with his students at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Ray wanted to teach his students filmmaking by making a feature film on which they would rotate jobs.

As such, it’s an important document, though it doesn’t date well. 1970s political rhetoric mouthed by students can sound cliched and simplistic these days. And the use of colorization — there are psychedelic effects galore — reinforce the notion that this is very much of its time. The argument can be made this work predated reality TV, but to be candid, I’d rather have sat through another screening of In A Lonely Place — for the umpteenth time. Still, it was a warm, respectful occasion, attended by Ray’s widow Susan and family members.

Lastly, I complained yesterday about the standard of some foreign language films in competition here. Emanuele Crialese redressed the balance today with Terraferma, a story of an Italian fishing family living on a small, remote offshore island. Their business is declining, and their lives are altered when, out on their boat one night, they rescue north African illegal immigrants struggling to swim for shore.

In his earlier films Respiro and The Golden Door, Crialese has shown his gift for capturing the lives of poor Italians living far from the country’s affluent urban centres. Terraferma is no masterpiece, but it’s a humane, likable work, solidly appreciated by the home audience in Venice.

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