Steve McQueen’s film about a sex addict in New York, played by Michael Fassbender, will not be shown in Singapore. Censors there have demanded that certain scenes be cut. In particular, a graphic threesome involving Fassbender’s protagonist Brandon Sullivan and two women offended the authorities. Even after these alterations, Shame would only have been shown to those aged 21 and over. Faced with the prospect of his original work being butchered, McQueen has decided not to release the film in Singapore.
To which I say, good for him. The issue of censorship often only raises its ugly head above the parapet because of films like The Human Centipede or The Human Centipede 2. Such films are designed to shock and give the censors a problem. Many of them aim to be banned or controversially released, which will fuel curiosity and word of mouth. The filmmakers behind such gruesome, low budget projects know that turning their movies into forbidden fruit is far more effective than any marketing campaign their funds could afford. This is why a large chunk of film critics always argue, in the inevitably heated debate that follows any act of censorship, that the disgusting films should be shown to an adult audience, unedited, at the cinema. Without the allure of a ban, the argument goes, the films will flop at the box office and demand for them will fizzle out.
There are flaws to this view but this is beside the point. Shame is not shocking for the sake of it. There is nothing gratuitous about the sex and nudity. Every shot of a bare buttock or a naked nipple contributes to the overarching theme that defines Brandon’s life. Rarely is the sex erotic, it is simply there, a necessary part of existence. Shame is a gripping study of addiction, which needs to show the audience the everyday reality of its main character’s all consuming compulsion. In other words, the shocking bits on the screen during Shame are a by-product of characterisation and storytelling. Unlike The Human Centipede and its infantile class mates, Shame is a grown up film, with bags of artistic merit.
It really isn’t an exaggeration to talk about Shame as though it were a work of art. Steve McQueen’s background as an artist shines through in the camerawork from the very start. But I’m talking about more than the beautifully long shots of New York (that jogging scene!). There’s a reason that Shame caused such excitable critical buzz and won itself nominations during awards season. The film works well as a whole, despite having standout moments that sear themselves into your memory, like Carey Mulligan’s sensual rendition of ‘New York, New York’ or Fassbender’s brooding stares on the subway.
It’s a poetically tragic story at times, even with its sordid subject matter, which tackles a contemporary issue in society that remains a genuine taboo. The film’s title is incredibly apt and the runtime is confidently concise. Not a single scene is wasted. Sadly, by taking on a real and current issue that is rarely addressed, Shame became too raw to win big awards like Oscars and Baftas. American voters for the Academy Awards didn’t like confronting the harmful sexualisation of their society. This is a terrible shame (pardon the pun) because it’s the choice of issue that gives the narrative its overwhelming force and worth.
Clearly I appreciate McQueen’s artistry behind the camera, as well as his work on the script with Abi Morgan. But for me the real crime of the awards season was that Michael Fassbender did not win anything notable for his performance in Shame. Jean Dujardin was excellent in The Artist and Gary Oldman deservedly captured the British imagination with his role in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. However, compared to what Fassbender does in Shame, these performances are mere imitation. Dujardin channels the spirit of silent cinema’s stars, whilst Oldman copies and slightly reworks Alec Guinness’ original interpretation of George Smiley. Ok, that’s harsh and inaccurate, but for me Fassbender trumps both of these outstanding examples of acting. He is the glue that holds all the masterful pieces of Shame together. His intensity is extraordinary, all the more so because of the way he offsets it with intimacy.
The best scene in the entire film, for me, is when Brandon tries and fails to be intimate. He whisks a work colleague away to a stunning penthouse on a whim. At first, he appears to be enjoying the fact that he knows this woman and they are not just meeting for sex. However, when she tries to make love to him, he cannot go through with it. He cannot cope with the eye contact, the kissing, the possibility of love.
To censor this scene would be utter madness. It would rob audiences of a sublime moment of cinema, a moment of truth, a moment of art. It is painful and awkward to watch, whilst also being captivatingly moving and real. Fassbender conveys frustration, vulnerability and dozens of other emotions, simply through glances, gestures and movements. The foreplay in this scene is so lifelike, playing out like a stumbling dance on the bed. For many, this will be the most erotic scene in Shame, because there is tenderness and seduction on offer, rather than a mere brutal release of pent up desire.
Shame should never be censored because everyone will have their own favourite scene. The ingredient that makes Shame feel more like art than an ordinary film is ambiguity. All art is ambiguous, open to multiple meanings and interpretations. Fassbender’s longing looks on buses and trains will be alluring to some, but repugnant to others. McQueen is right to deny the censors the chance to spoil any ambiguous component of his story. This film deserves and demands to be seen, but only as it was originally intended.