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Essman, E. (2012). Shame directed by Steven McQueen Fox Searchlight Pictures: 2011, 101 minutes. Fort Da, 18(2):90-95.

(2012). Fort Da, 18(2):90-95

Film Review Essay

Shame directed by Steven McQueen Fox Searchlight Pictures: 2011, 101 minutes

Review by:
Eric Essman, M.A.

When do films that foreground sexual behavior illustrate sexual symptomology and merit critical attention?

On the premise that films as mass entertainment occupy an ambiguous position between art and non-art, cinephile philosopher Alain Badiou (2010) has argued that films as art result from an effort of “purification” (épuration) with respect to elements of narrative and imagery derived from popular genres and subject matter (pp. 223-224). Concerning sexuality, directors in the past — aiming at a general audience and subject to code restrictions — resorted to symbolism, whether clichéd (trains in tunnels, crashing waves, flickering flames) or inspired, as in Spellbound (dir., A. Hitchcock, 1945), in which the deeply arousing effect of a passionate kiss is shown by a series of doors opening in a corridor. Badiou notes that it was common for directors to “sexualize minor details” (p. 225). A typical device was to substitute the allure of quasi-fetishistic objects (jewelry, clothing) for body parts — as emphasized by the title of Marcel Ophuls's Earrings of Madame D. (1953) or, in homage to silent film imagery, as instantiated by the man's jacket caressed by the starlet in The Artist (dir., M. Hazanavicius, 2011).

By contrast, the greater frankness permitted contemporary productions risks pornographic literalism and appeal to prurience, their full-frontal candor fig-leafed only by wages-of-sin moralization. The alternative to pornography is not moralism, however, but depth of feeling and emotional honesty. The cinematic artistry of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), for example, is not only evident in the director's mastery of voluptuous camera movements and an expressive pictorial universe inspired by Francis Bacon paintings, but also in the shift from sensationally depicting an anonymous sexual encounter toward revealing the ambivalence of mourning.

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