Toronto 2011: ‘Shame’ director surprised by controversy


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Even though this year’s award season is just getting going, ‘Shame,’ starring Michael Fassbender, has already caused a stir. The movie’s frank sexual content has prompted spirited debate among audiences, and the film prompted at least one woman to faint (at the Toronto Film Festival premiere, though apparently because of a moment of on-screen violence, not a sex scene).

But ask director Steve McQueen what he thinks of the fuss and he waves it away. ‘I didn’t do this to be provocative,’ he said in a Toronto hotel room Tuesday. ‘They say Michael is naked. Half the people in the audience have what he has, and 99% percent of the audience has seen what he has. It’s the most un-shocking thing you can think of. And yet someone picks up a gun and blows someone’s head off and that’s normal.’


He added, ‘What I want to do in cinema is hold up a mirror to how people are.’

In ‘Shame,’ Fassbender portrays Brandon, a good-looking but lonely man with a propensity for hard-core Internet porn, public sexual encounters with strangers and various forms of X-rated kinkiness. Since the film screened at Toronto, festival-goers have been debating just how sympathetic his character is, and what McQueen was hinting at in some of the more suggestive scenes. (Brendan’s murky relationship with his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, is a particular point of debate.)

With what he calls the ‘prevalence’ of sex in both the film and in the culture at large, McQueen said he believed ‘Shame’ had a certain timeliness. ‘The movie is so now. But it still could have been anything -- it could have been gambling and it could have been an alcohol addiction.’

For all its explicit content, “Shame” is far from an exploitation piece. The BAFTA-winning McQueen is prone to long takes and longer silences, and puts meticulous effort into composing each shot, which is no doubt part of the reason audiences are discussing it as intensely as they are.

Of the many bold flourishes in his film, McQueen said the silences were of particular importance to him. ‘It tells so much more than some ridiculous conversation,’ he said. ‘People talk all the time and nobody says anything. You can say a lot more with silence.’

-- Steven Zeitchik in Toronto