At the New Yorker, Anthony Lane reviews two films filled with sex.
Shame depicts the life of sex-obsessed Brandon, a New Yorker who fills every free moment with fucking. And in Sleeping Beauty, student Lucy earns cash by taking a sleeping pill and making her unconscious body available for the use of paying customers.
Though neither film is explicitly about fantasy, each describes a kind of fantasy. That of Sleeping Beauty — from the viewpoint of the client — is of easy control, availability. That of Shame is about extremes of emotion. It’s Apollo and Dionysius, transposed to a world where Apollo is getting in on sex.
Sex, here, isn’t necessarily sex — it’s a McGuffin which could stand for any activity which is coveted, or extreme, or intense. Anything which becomes an object of desire, which is fixated on and fantasized about, becomes twisted in a similar way. One kind of mind layers on organized parades of passive partners; another craves extremes of expressed emotion.
Nothing is so neat, of course. For a start, the taming of emotion has an apepal all of its own. Lane, coincidentally, suggests this of Shame director Steve McQueen. His earlier film Hunger:
was imperilled by the coolness of its own gaze. The wall of a jail cell, smeared with excrement as an act of protest, was filmed with such compositional care that it became, in effect, a work of abstract art, allowing us to forget what it actually was: human waste, applied with human rage, and surely unbearable to the human nose. McQueen could hardly be hipper, yet he remains, to an extent, an old-fashioned aesthete, drawn to extreme behavior in his characters not because of any trials of spirit that they undergo but because he is challenging himself to unleash the wildest material that he, wielding his camera, can then possess and tame.
And if the more you think about it, the convoluted all this gets. Not a breakdown, so much as epicycles upon epicycles, an Apollonian OCD trying to leave its grip on the chaos of human passion.