I haven't been to an artsy movie in quite awhile, so I might be a little bit out of practice. But...are they always this boring? I had been looking forward to seeing Shame for awhile - I like Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and sex, so I figured it'd be great. And in a strange way it did seem like a good movie, despite having very little narrative and being mostly pretty dull. I want to say a little more about it, and in some sense there will be spoilers, but it's more that I want to run an "explanation" by you and see what you think.
Incidentally, I just checked whether other online reviews discuss this at all and it turns out they do, but for the wrong reasons. So - kind of a spoiler, but not really: to me, this seemed like a movie about the fall-out from incest. I mean, the basic plot is that Fassbender is a sex addict, Mulligan, his sister, shows up and wants to stay in his apartment, they argue a lot, she seems to also have some really messed up relationships and be pretty screwed up emotionally, etc. Now, plenty of people on the Internet are like omg there are scenes of them naked together it's incest!!! Which is dumb. I mean, not having siblings I can't really speak authoritatively about it, but being a degraded European, I don't see anything weird about being naked around your siblings. There is, however, a definite sexual tension (I think) between the two of them, and they both have some serious sexual problems, and some of those problems seem connected to their relationship, which alternates between uncomfortably close (emotionally and physically - in the sense of location, not sex) and rather detached. Also, there's this scene where she says "We're not bad people we just come from a bad place." which seemed to me like an obvious allusion to some secret in their past. Finally - if that is what's going on, it provides some kind of organizing idea for the narrative, which is otherwise pretty aimless and meandering. To say that it's purely about Fassbender's sex addiction doesn't really account for the fact that all the focal points of the plot seem to come back to his sister in some way - even if it's because they're happening while he's avoiding her. So if that's what it's a story about, then there is a point, and it's subtle, and actually quite well done and kind of interesting.
If it's just about Fassbender being a sex addict - I'm not that impressed. McQueen is brilliant at creating a visual subtext - one of the best aspects of the movie is how Fassbender mostly sees women as sexualized body parts; thighs, cleavage, an open mouth. It's extremely well done and actually somewhat disturbing. but the sex addiction story doesn't really do much for me. I guess maybe because I don't find it revelatory that nymphomania might be a rather sordid and unpleasant kind of lifestyle. I don't find it surprising that sex can be totally unsexy and actually rather mechanical and gross, even if it's a threesome with hot women. I mean seriously - have you ever watched porn? Or even that David Duchovny show, Californication?
Much has been made, on the internetz, of a scene where Fassbender meets a nice woman and then is unable to perform. This, to me, was not an especially compelling scene. Again - not surprising that someone accustomed to mindless intercourse might find genuine intimacy hard to negotiate. But the scene also just wasn't entirely believable to me, and it didn't really carry much weight story-wise. I'm glad it wasn't overdone, but I think one would need a bit more insight into Fassbender's mental life to see it as meaningful, because he mostly just exuded a rather undifferentiated anguish throughout, which wasn't all that engaging.
Steve McQueen is an amazing director. You should watch Hunger, if you haven't, because it's phenomenal. Shame isn't really on the required viewing list, but it is a McQueen movie, and as such, there is something kind of mesmerizing about it. It is visually rich, but narratively disappointing.