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Shame

Year: 2011
Production Co: Film4
Studio: See-Saw Films
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: Steve McQueen/Abi Morgan/Harold Manning
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

There's a particular moral stance American films take on sex that reminds you about just how prudish and repressed a country it is. This movie is about a sex addict, and in almost any other culture of the world – certainly most of those of Europe – the tone would just as likely be one of slight eye rolling about a guy who lets his life go off the rails because he watches porn, hires hookers and jerks off too much, not one of such a profound descent into emotional hell.

But this is an American movie in all but name. It was made by Film4 and writer/director Steve McQueen is a Brit – I can only assume he's internalised the moral culture of American movies as completely as the rest of the world.

So sex – let alone the sex addiction the movie's about – is portrayed with a breathless sense of how dangerous and edgy it is, how it's as serious as a car crash, how the person doing all the shagging can't possibly be happy or fulfilled.

According to the American moral sensibility, liking porn, hookers or even sex is something to be hated and terrified of. It will only lead to the (grey-hued and very stylish) moral corruption of society, like right wing media commentators and politicians are always foaming at the mouth about.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a devilishly handsome 30something New Yorker who avoids relationships but bangs anything that looks sideways at him, ignores repeated calls from his little sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) to whack off to internet porn, and can't get it up when he falls into bed with a beautiful co-worker but shags a hooker up against the windows of his high rise apartment with no trouble after she leaves.

He seems to have, as the movie title suggests, shame about not being able to form or keep real relationships, an emotional deficiency he covers up with sex. And it's oh-so-moody and swarthy and sexy, Brandon's shame. He's so twisted up with self loathing that near the end when he's giving it to two women at once in a local cathouse he starts crying at how far he's sunk.

Yes, you read that right. Only in America can banging two gorgeous hookers be considered rock bottom, because only in America is sex considered something morally vile and socially destructive unless it's done in the sanctity of the Protestant-blessed marital bed and will lead to children (or if the movie intimates that's where the people doing it will end up).

Full frontal shots of Fassbender's little Michael only add to the childish 'oooh, isn't it naughty?' mystique. Once again I found myself thinking about how it would have sparked (and indeed did) endless media discussion about how avant-garde and eyebrow raising it was in America while the average European or Australian would smirk and go 'big deal - it's a cock. 50 percent of the world's population have one'.

But I'll stop picking on the morals behind the theme and just talk about the movie. It's very blue-lit and slow, Brandon drifting through his life barely keeping a lid on his addiction – he appears to have no friends, doesn't take his sister's calls, and after his work computer comes back from being infected with a virus his supervisor tells him the stuff they found on it was 'filthy', immediately suggesting it might have been a former intern and exonerating Brandon from guilt.

In desperation at him constantly ignoring her, the child-like and fairly flaky Sissy just lets herself in while he's at work one day, helping herself to his couch and shower, and Brandon's furious even though he can't very well kick her out.

Their time together is less a story than a series of interactions, and writer/director McQueen isn't in a hurry with any of them. One sequence of Sissy singing a rendition of 'New York New York' in a classy bar with Brandon and his boss watching her is so slow and long you'll start reaching for the fast forward.

There's little actual resolution to any of it either. At one stage he leaves his apartment to jog, as if trying to outrun his life and addiction, but that motif is forgotten just as quickly. On another occasion he takes woman at his work that's been giving him the eye out on a date, and he's so uninvolving and has so little to talk about you'll be waiting for her to fall asleep. Instead – for some reason – she's still attracted to him.

Along with a montage of him propositioning a woman in a bar and getting beaten up by her boyfriend outside, the aborted date forms whatever denouement McQueen is going for. But even then, when Brandon seems to realise what his life's become he isn't giving blowjobs to homeless guys behind dumpsters for small change. He still has a job and lives in a beautiful apartment overlooking Manhattan, he just goes to some dock on the other side from the city one day in the rain and slowly curls into a ball on the ground crying.

If it had contained more narrative meat maybe the moral theme wouldn't have seemed so pretentious, but I just kept rolling my eyes and hoping that – if I ever descend into an addiction – it's half as glamourous as this.

It also committed a common cardinal movie sin that automatically wrenches me out of the experience, the leading man who only has to smirk at a woman he doesn't know and she's almost throwing her panties at him. I don't care who you are or how masculine or stunning you are, women in the real world just don't act like that.

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