Shame

Shame ★★★★

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
to shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

–Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

It’s funny, I think of Hollywood and immediately think of an industry so fueled by sex and hot bodies that to see a film like SHAME portray sex as something so unsexy, so joyless, actually makes for an attractive sort of irony. This is not the kind of film you were anxious to see as a teenager when you drooled helplessly after naked bodies. I’m willing to bet no one will even be aroused by this film’s content. But, if you happen to be the anomaly, well, you may want to visit your local shrink.

The NC-17 rating is well deserved here but don’t be fooled. What might have been a visual pleasure for some is nothing short of existential misery for its characters. How can something so beautiful turn so grotesque? Very easily. And it is here that British filmmaker Steve McQueen seems to decry the compulsion to climax.

The film follows Brandon, a self-destructive sex addict compelled to repeat the same behavior over and over again: to feed his sexual desires in the most shameful of ways. Hookers, pornos, gay clubs, online strip-teases, masturbation, etc. For Brandon it’s all lust and no love. Orgasms but no emotional connection. He’s a prisoner of his own needs, a carnal monster who reveals the cruel paradox of addiction: even the greatest source of pleasure can transform into an inescapable, insatiable pain. How did Democritus put it? Ahh yes, “Throw moderation to the winds,” he says, “and your greatest pleasures will become your greatest pains.”

I think what’s really interesting about this film lies in its consequences. Brandon is never able to engage in real intimacy because people for him have only ever existed as things to be used. To him women are objects, not subjects; sex toys, not human beings. He is unable to change his actions, or the shame they cause him, because a lifetime so dedicated to sleaze and filth has literally rendered him incapable of feeling naturally. The blank, zombie-like expressions on his face convince us of this much.

And so, when we consider the world we live in, a world that venerates the orgasm and still finds no link between pornography and our low, sexual drives and perversions, we can hopefully remember Brandon—the great sinking symbol of our own destructive, dehumanizing tendencies.


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