In 1972, many critics believed that Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris would revolutionize how sexuality was depicted and accepted in mainstream cinema. As we all know, there has been no revolution. We have not evolved all that much, and realistic, intelligent depictions of sexuality are not only still seen as taboo but, thanks to the NC-17 rating, remain verboten in most cinemas.
In fact, in the US, the NC-17 rating has become the commercial kiss of death that relegates films to art-house status. So, what about British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s upcoming film Shame? McQueen’s sophomore effort has been branded with the feared NC-17, however, it appears that the film’s distributor Fox Searchlight is taking a much different approach than what is typically the norm.
What usually happens as a result of being rated NC-17 by the MPAA is either the film’s steamier scenes are cut to try to secure an R rating, or the studio lawyers up to try to get the rating altered.
Major releases, or at least films by major filmmakers, are in an awkward position if they are unwilling to compromise, and unable to force an alteration in their rating. When distributors and filmmakers accept their fate, and release their film with the dreaded rating, it is basically accepting box-office suicide. For the most part, major theatre chains refuse to play NC-17 rated films, making it almost impossible to reach a mainstream audience.
Shame is only McQueen’s second film, however he is an established artist, one who would certainly not cut his film to please the distributor. This is what makes Fox Searchlight’s decision so surprising. The confidence that Searchlight has showed by not only accepting the rating, but picking up the film for distribution in the first place shows that it may believe that this is may be the film that subverts the NC-17 rating as a commercial death sentence.
McQueen’s film, focussing on a New York business man who must confront his sex addiction, has been getting high praise at the festivals, and with Fox pushing hard for Oscar consideration, we may see this film become a surprise hit. There is no doubt that Shame will stir up controversy due to its explicit sexual content and subject matter, and with the combined star power of Michael Fassbender and Carrey Mulligan this film may become a huge point of discussion come its release in December.
It is possible Fox Searchlight is hoping for a Last Tango In Paris situation, where audiences are intrigued by both the controversy and quality of the film. But Shame is a film that will likely appeal to couples, and if Fox Searchlight’s strategy is successful, it may just be the film that succeeds where Last Tango failed, changing commercial perceptions around the NC-17 rating.
This is a change that is desperately needed, as it may finally allow filmmakers to explore sexuality in intelligent ways without courting complete financial failure.