Ostensibly, Shame is a film about a sex-addict; underneath, it’s a film that examines self-imposed isolation from a prudish society that taboos prurience. As Brandon, a thirty-something, successful New Yorker, Michael Fassbender gives a characteristically solid performance; at times, he is dislikable in reactions toward his wayward, vulnerable sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), but his existence is also simultaneously heart-rending and pitiful when his anger transitions to a longing for human connection, something that he craves but refuses to indulge in.
The downside to this performance is that it will be talked about more for its presence in a film stigmatized by an NC-17 rating – typically a death blow to award chances and public success. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which claims to be the “voice and advocate of the American motion picture,” asserts that “NC-17 does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ … and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense.” Furthermore, “An NC-17 rating can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.” Theoretically, the MPAA has undertaken a noble endeavor to do their part to prevent the mangling of the minds of the youth.
At the same time, the NC-17 rating is often seen as akin to a rating of “X,” a signifier of sexually pornographic films like Deep Throat or Behind the Green Door. While the rating has been euphemized in an attempt to soften the stigma, the most recent NC-17 films have received such a rating based on sexual content as opposed to graphic violence or drug behavior; therefore, despite the MPAA’s definition, this more euphonic rating is still a way to mask the existence of sexual puerilities, actions that are rather commonplace and might not necessarily be “aberrational behavior.” How else can one explain the billion-dollar pornography industry or the various “hook-up sites” that offer one-night stands or flings from stagnant relationships?
According to Boxofficemojo, each of the ten top grossing NC-17 films has been given such a rating based on sexual content, from Showgirls at number 1, ($20.3 million) to Shame (number 10, having grossed $1.7 million). The exception to this categorization might be Bad Education, which sits at number 4 and has grossed $5.2 million. It certainly has a wealth of sex, but the content is more taboo in that it tackles molestation and pederasty by the church, something that could be considered more “aberrational” than the various sexual encounters that Brandon indulges in to the tune of Bach crescendos in Shame.