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Who Will Take a Chance on Michael Fassbender's Sex-Drenched, Gruesome 'Shame'? (Analysis)

"Our selling point is that we've not been shy," says producer Iain Canning of director Steve McQueen's graphic drama, which could be an awards contender if it can first secure an American release.

Finding a distributor and an audience for an independent film is always a challenge -- even when it doesn't include male and female full-frontal nudity, graphic depictions of straight/gay/threeway sex, masturbation, urination and a gruesome suicide attempt.

So Hunger director Steve McQueen's new movie Shame, which stars Michael Fassbender as a tortured sex addict and Carey Mulligan as his equally tormented sister, has its work cut out for it.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Toronto International Film Festival

In the wake of its Venice and Telluride debuts last weekend, the $6.5 million-budgeted film has stirred up abundant conversation and buyer interest as it heads to Toronto. But given its guaranteed NC-17 rating, the film has severe limitations both in the marketplace and on the awards circuit, a critical pillar of any potential success for a difficult film. U.K. sales agent HanWay Films, which is selling rights worldwide, has already offloaded 40-plus foreign territories through pre-sales -- even to the United Arab Emirates -- but American audiences are, of course, much more prudish.

"We knew we were going to be uncompromising," says producer Iain Canning, who, with partner Emile Sherman, took home an Oscar for The King's Speech in February. "We always knew that we needed to make a film that was strong and powerful and talked about -- elements of how we live now and the spectrum of sexuality and access to pornography around the world. And we knew we were going to need a team of people in the U.S. who were going to be brave. That is our selling point. Our selling point is that we've not been shy."


The ensuing paradox may be that the explicitness draws some viewers while at the same time repelling older Academy voters unwilling to sit through the film -- at the Telluride screening several older patrons walked out (and this was before the protagonist hit bottom, as it were). Performances with sexual elements have been nominated before, in Last Tango in Paris (Marlon Brando), Blue Valentine (Michelle Williams), Monster (Charlize Theron) and The Piano (Holly Hunter). The latter two actresses won the award.

But Fassbender's lead performance, which potential buyers are undoubtedly eyeing as the key to any real awards success, required an extreme level of nudity, simulated sex and anguish. "I would hope that pushing the boundaries and pushing the level of performance as an actor would be recognized," says Canning, who acknowledges that McQueen is not open to cuts. "Everybody that's talking to us now about U.S. distribution understands that this film is in its final form."

A distributor could always wait to release it next year and piggyback it on A Dangerous Method, hoping that Fassbender is recognized for his strong performance in that more accessible film come February.

STORY: Telluride 2011: Sex and Psychoanalysis in 'Shame' and 'A Dangerous Method'

Shame may also benefit from timeliness, since the news has lately been dominated by a multitude of sex-related scandals around the world, from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the dozens of American legislators that have lost jobs from sex-related missteps. Curiosity just may be peaking.

"It's our hope that people are allowed to make judgments on what cinema they want to see," says Canning. "In terms of the reactions at this stage, going towards Toronto, I have no concerns that we will find an American distributor for the film.

Email: Jay.Fernandez@thr.com