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Movie Review: Maximum Shame

By Mike Everleth ⋅ June 28, 2010

Woman sticks her tongue out while a medical device keeps her mouth open

Post-apocalyptic films are, of course, typically allegories for life in our modern world or specific historical eras. However, Spanish underground filmmaker Carlos Atanes has stuffed the allegorical envelope so full that very little in his down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy Maximum Shame remotely resembles anything that could be considered reality.

Atanes’ “wonderland” is a massive, garbage-strewn, sewer water-soaked abandoned warehouse that is presided over by a black leather-clad, roller skate-wearing Queen, played with total sadistic glee by Marina Gatell. The world, apparently, has fallen into a black hole and this hellish place is all that exists anymore.

The Queen humiliates her subjects by trussing them up in S&M gear. Although these devices are not used for sexual purposes. Instead, her subjects are simply robbed of the ability to speak or eat. Thus, they are rendered as mute imbeciles, forced to listen to her megalomaniacal ranting.

Maximum Shame is an incredibly dense movie, which is particularly surprising since it’s Atanes’ first film in English. The characters don’t engage in dialogue as much as they spout off tyrannical monologues, engaging in a loopy logic that only makes sense to themselves. There are also, even more surprisingly, a couple of musical numbers thrown in. The songs, with music by Marc Alvarez and lyrics by Atanes, are quite catchy.

In addition to the Queen, the majority of the other characters are similarly named after chess pieces. The film begins with the Queen sacrificing a Rook (Paco Moreno) by impaling him through the throat after she allows him to suckle her breast. The sacrifice brings a Bishop (Ana Mayo) into the Queen’s realm, where she is subsequently tortured alongside a singing Knight (Ignasi Vidal). There’s also quite possibly a King character in the film, but — like with most of the movie — that can be left up to interpretation. (My interpretation is that actress Ariadna Ferrer becomes the King.)

Whether or not the film is following the logic of an actual chess game isn’t clear. Although, this is the type of film that would take repeat viewings to sort out everything that’s going on in it. The plot, such as it is, resembles more of a puzzle to the audience while the characters are somehow fulfilling their roles as game pieces.

However, the chess analogy is a good one since it’s a game of domination and subjugation, and there’s plenty of that happening in the film. Characters aren’t “shamed” so much as they are humiliated and robbed of the basic essence that makes them human: They can’t eat, speak or move about freely and are periodically viciously attacked. Like the Queen chess piece, Gatell is given roller skates so she can glide anywhere she wants to in the dingy warehouse. She is a sovereign, yet rules a place nobody would ever want to visit.

The Bishop — who alternates with the Queen as being the main character in the film — is the most humiliated. She is drawn to this game against her will, robbed of her true love, i.e. the Rook, then sealed up in what can be best described as an iron maiden made out of a cardboard box. She is trapped, along with the audience, from this nightmare world from which there appears to be no escape.

While the female characters are trussed up in sexy attire and strapped with bondage fetish devices, the film is fairly devoid of sexual activity. The devices are there just for the humiliation, without any other character deriving any pleasure from the situation. The only scene that comes close to being sexual is The Pawn’s (David Castro) manic masturbation scene, an act that appears not to be stimulated in any way by the women surrounding him. The “shame” indicated by the title that any of the characters may feel is derived from having their humanity completely robbed from them.

Out of Atanes’ three feature films to date, after FAQ and Proxima, Maximum Shame is his most confined and claustrophobic, at least in terms of scope and plot. This film is the closest to his earlier short films, basically existing as a series of tableaux. Although connected, each scene could exist by itself and each has the feeling of being still paintings being brought to life. How this film is connected to all of his films, shorts and features alike, is his uncanny knack for finding distressed locations that really give his work a truly otherworldly vibe.

There are several references within the film that the characters have been teleported to another dimension and it certainly does feel that way. Plus, as most of the characters are robbed of their humanity, there is a distinct, and clearly intentional, lack of anything human. While there may not be much warmth to the film, it’s certainly very playful, particularly in Gatell’s straight-faced clowning around on roller skates.

As such, Maximum Shame is a confounding film, but in the good way a good puzzle film should be. It has the veneer of sexuality with no actual sex, violence without any cathartic release and musical numbers that are disturbing rather than cheerful. Despite these contradictions, it is — like the best of Atanes’ films — a completely engaging experience.

Watch the Maximum Shame movie trailer: