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“Just about everyone has had sex and has seen someone of the opposite sex naked. There’s only a very small minority of people who have shot someone in the head, but apparently that’s the kind of thing that can be seen in the cinema.”

Every few years a film challenges the stigma of NC-17. Back when the rating was still an "X," Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Last Tango in Paris (1972) made the case that a film that confronted truths and contained nudity was not only non-pornographic but could be a work of art. Many other attempts to restore the NC-17 rating to respectability have followed, most recently Blue Valentine. Like that film, most have ended up submitting to edits in order to get the more commercially viable "R."

>> READReview: Shame <<

But this year Steve McQueen's NC-17-rated Shame might push the rating mainstream. It features a Brando-esque performance by Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a successful professional in Manhattan enslaved by his sex addiction. And the British director comes with outstanding credentials. He's a Turner Prize-winning artist whose first film, Hunger, won critical kudos.

When I interviewed him, McQueen made a persuasive case for his film, and also for one of his non-film projects that has encountered a different kind of censorship.

DO THE RECENT SEX SCANDALS INVOLVING HERMAN CAIN AND PENN STATE AND OTHERS MAKE THIS FILM MORE TIMELY? Absolutely. It is a reality. Of course, these are high-profile cases, but all communities have sex addiction as well. This is a film about now. It's not a costume drama. People are leaving the cinema scratching their heads. People are still thinking about the film three or four days afterwards.

AS WITHHUNGER, YOU DID A LOT OF RESEARCH, BUT YOU SAID YOU COULDN'T RESEARCHSHAME IN BRITAIN BECAUSE NO ONE WOULD TALK ABOUT SEX ADDICTION. IS THAT POSSIBLE? Yes. At the time it [sex addiction] was very much in the news, and the British press have such a reputation that I think that people just shut down. So I wanted to speak to experts in the field, and we — myself and [co-screenwriter] Abi Morgan — went to New York to talk to these doctors, who were amazing. They introduced us to sex addicts, and we spoke with sex addicts. Very, very intense.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT IT? Well, it was quite a revelation. When I first heard about sex addiction, I laughed. As most people do — they can't believe it. People don't take the addiction seriously. That's the thing about it. So these people have been ostracized a bit. It's like with HIV and AIDS. People don't want to talk about it.

HOW WIDESPREAD IS IT? They say 24 million people have sex addiction in this country. But of course there are people who don't believe they have sex addiction. They think they are just promiscuous. Promiscuity is one thing, but having sex addiction is another. In the sense that people have to relieve themselves 20 times a day or be on the Internet for 72 hours at a time. People are dubious about it, but it is a real affliction.

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 See all articles by: PETER KEOUGH

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