In one of the film’s earlier scenes James Badge Dale’s supporting character tells a bevy of beautiful young women that the secret of his success is “attention to detail.” It’s an important point because I would say that the key to this films success is the very same thing. The nuances, the glances and slight changes in expression are how this story is shared; it’s a tale told in body language not something blatant like words. Everything feels improvised, natural and yet it is the minutia of each scene that holds the most importance, every plot point raised returns again at some later point in some unexpected way, implying an intense level of control and fastidiousness. Director Steve McQueen, the man behind the movie, has proven himself a genius in the department of details with this picture, balancing those two approaches with aplomb. He has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of with this movie and yet so many will likely dislike it.
The majority of the movie goes unsaid because the life lived by Brendan, its lead character is a largely repressed one, but that definitely doesn’t mean that there is nothing that they may want to say, that the film of the man is empty. The topic on which both want to comment but can’t is sex and although all of the hype would suggest otherwise this theme too goes mostly unsaid and more importantly unshown. Those too squeamish to see this in a public theatre should then re-think their tact; “Shame” isn’t just a pretentious porno it’s a proper picture that just so happens to have a thematic through line that is a little lude. Though sex is the driving force for both the film and the man in its middle, though it permeates every moment of his thinking the depiction of it is not graphic, we feel it more than we see it. Which is good because I saw this in a packed out cinema.
Though his obsession is obvious whether or not Brendan is actually an addict is yet another thing that goes unspecified and unsaid by the film itself. The word ‘nymphomaniac’ is never actually mentioned within the movie nor for that matter is ‘shame’ – though these are the two terms that drive the narrative. We can though assume that Brendan is so inflicted because of the specific way that he deals with sex; for him it is something to hide, a chore rather than something to celebrate. He garners no actual joy from the act, it’s a job to him, one more important to him than his actual employment. In fact when the sex is in any way intimate his body rejects the experience, rendering him impotent in the process. This behavior is shown to be pathological and not simply a symptom of physical design by the way in which he eats, food is of course the closest second to fornication.Brendan also derives no pleasure from dining; he couldn’t care less about what he orders when out on a date as we see in the hilarious dinner scene, it’s the woman across from him that his appetite hungers for and he can never truly focus on anything else.
I can’t rightly render judgement on Michael Fassbender’s performance as Brendan because he so strongly sinks into the role; he’s a person, not a performance. The supporting cast is more easily dissected however. James Badge Dale provides some very necessary comedic relief as Brendan’s boss and side-kick, but more than that he is a counterpoint to out lead character, he is the other side of sex addiction. He also spends every second of every scene he has on screen chasing women, but he does it so out in the open and so ineptly that we see him as harmless, as an aforementioned joke. So often you hear people writing sex addiction off as just an excuse for sleeping around and rather that preach the points of difference McQueen knows that there is no clearer way of defining the difference between an addict and an average adulterous male than by simply showing it. For this guy it is all about the chase, proving your patriarchy, a positive act but for Brendan sex is a very different affair.
Carey Mulligan’s role is just as interesting if not entirely as effective. Her characters relationship with Brendan is fascinating, there is a tension there between the two but this is not an incestuous urge as many seemed to speculate. He doesn’t really want to sleep with her, it’s just that a man with a mind like his can never really have a normal relationship with another woman, no matter who; half his body leans towards her and half away. There is a clever but very subtle reference to this in the first of the two sex scenes: he asks his date if her stockings are ’vintage’ in the same way his sister proclaimed it about her hat earlier, he is then rendered impotent. Coincidence? No, but nor is it entirely necessary to note. This is but one of many minor facets available within the film. Similarly there is also a hint of her being of a similar sexual persuasion to Brendan and that perhaps their upbringing is to blame, but none of this is ever really dealt with in-depth.
While the execution of this approach is more than admirable it is not one that will appeal to a wide or weaker-willed audience. The film is empty of content but full of potential, in that it has a surplus of stories but never actually tells them to you, discovering them is your job. For example there is a scene in which Brendan stands waiting for an elevator and then when one comes he let’s it close. This incident is either him giving Dale and Mulligan’s characters time on their own, setting up the segregation so that they can forget about his existence and sleep together, thus rendering his later rage self-inflicted, that or it’s just a man sitting in a lobby. It’s your choice, you make the movie and I know which of those that i’d rather watch. At his core Brendan is just a man that can’t look away – he doesn’t know how, even when he most needs too, he lacks the requisite control – and when you make the movie right he is a character that you just can’t look away from.