By David Poland email@example.com
SHAME & Incest
So… lots of dramatic, petty tweeting about Shame and incest.
I don’t know that Shame is the kind of movie that can be spoiled. But if you feel it can and you haven’t seen it… stop reading now.
I will push the rest of this piece after the jump…
I went into Shame at TIFF expecting a movie that hinged on incest between a brother and a sister.
I found a movie that was clearly about a sex addict who is, at the start of the film, managing his addiction rather well without even acknowledging that he has a problem. He isn’t putting his work or his life in jeopardy nor is he seeking particularly extreme behavior on the part of his conquests. But he is not in control. He is compulsive. And he is emotionally disconnected from all of his sexual behavior.
Sexual Addiction, as defined to me by SALA addicts in recovery, is, centrally, an inability to include intimacy in your sexual behaviors. The goal of The Program is to only have sex with intimacy. This doesn’t mean missionary position or general vanilla sex, but to share sex with someone with whom you are intimate in a real way.
The meaning of sex is a bit different for each addict, but like many addictions, there is an element of power, control, and confidence from the behavior involved.
When female porn performers talk about the business empowering them, I would not argue their sincerity. But why are they seeking that form of empowerment? How many of them are abusing themselves to control what they were not allowed to control in some previous situation?
Following the line of the movie, when the Fassbender character, Brandon, attempts to “clean up,” and gets rid of all of his porn and toys, then attempts to have something real with his office mate who has made clear that she is not interested in just blowing him on a subway platform and saying goodnight… he can’t get it up. The idea of it being something other than a fuck… not matter how sexy she is or how many tools he may have to control the fallout if it goes bad… no matter how willing she is to leap when he takes her to The Standard… cannot be overcome at that moment. So he calls a prostitute and everything works just fine.
Is he having a crisis of conscience as much as he is having his person issue? Possible. When he pulls her out of the office, she goes. His powerful ability to overcome her resistance to a situation like the one he puts her in haven’t failed. In spite of protests to the contrary on their date the night before, she has made herself open to being used much the same way the blonde woman who picks him up and gets fucked under a dirty bridge does. But he cannot take advantage. His mind, and by extension, his body, will not allow it.
Lots of room for conversation. But the juxtaposition of the woman from work and the paid prostitute is clear from the behavior of his genitals.
Now, getting to the sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan. She is trying to find him repeatedly in the first minutes of the film, leaving the same message over and over. He doesn’t respond. This could mean a million things, but as we later find out, she has some serious boundary issues and a history of clinging to her older brother.
We will also learn that both seem to be playing out adult responses to childhood trauma. Again, that trauma could be many things. Is there anything yet pointing to incest between the brother and the sister? No. There’s nothing pointing away from it either.
The brother and sister first lay eyes on one another in the film when she has already broken the boundary of getting into his home without letting him know and when he breaks into the bathroom, bat in hand, thinking it’s an unknown intruder, she stands and talks to him for a minute or two while completely nude. The image created by the director and DP is agnostic.
As distracting as seeing Carey Mulligan naked may be for the audience, the major breech in this scene is her breech of his order. For a man like this, nudity and sex are secondary to control… even if having sex is part of his disorder.
Is this a sign of a previous sexual relationship between the two? Not particularly. She clearly has major boundary issues and he is getting over the trauma of thinking he’s about to fight an intruder. It does suggest that they are not particularly uncomfortable with one another’s nudity. I don’t think this stands as evidence of sex between the two either. Some people are arguing the opposite and suggesting this is the proof of their past incest.
I would argue that at this point in the movie, skillful artist who offers subtextual information that he is, McQueen would not have a moment as sexually confrontive as this feels to the audience without any hint of attraction, repulsion, or serious consideration between the two siblings if they had been sexual partners in the past. I don’t understand how someone can argue that inaction by both characters is proof of a major previous event, like incest between brother and sister. There is no clear residual of the moment, there is no indication that either person has been triggered in their issue by the moment. So I don’t get the argument.
The other popular “proof” of incest is her wanting to snuggle in bed with him after having fucked his boss on the couch with little consideration of her brother.
I don’t understand why his anger at the events taking place in his home are proof of more than what is right in front of us. A. She’s fucking a guy she’s known for a couple of hours. B. It’s his boss C. She’s doing it where he has no choice but to listen. Oh, yes… and D. He’s a sex addict and his sister is behaving like the women he uses and discards.
Even without “D,” what brother would be okay with this behavior from his sister? Especially when trying to avoid it means cock-blocking the boss when he’s been wing-manning the boss, perhaps a prime strategy for not ever being threatened with losing his job over his odd behavior.
But with D, there is also the other element of her pushing his addiction buttons with her desperate need to be close to someone, even if it’s temporary. He may well be feeling the urge to sleep with her… to take what is his. And that may be driving part of his anger. But while jealousy between siblings about their non-family companions isn’t rare, the idea that a former incestuous relationship is now creating, essentially, romantic jealousy… I just don’t see why we would jump to that… except “because we can” and “McQueen is about subtext.”
Also note, there is no indication in the film that she is, by the standards set forth above, a sex addict. She is all kinds of trouble. But sexual addiction does not seem apparent. She only has sex the one time in the film.
Getting back to her attempt to smooth things over by getting into bed with him… a behavior shown earlier in the movie without any sexual activity or threat of activity resulting… when he decides to get her to leave… whether because he might find himself unable to control sexualizing her or because he is so angry at her behavior earlier in the night… he raises his voice forcefully. I am pretty sure it’s the only time he shouts in the entire film.
Why is this so effective? Because it’s clearly her trigger, which he knows as well as she knows his.
I would argue that this is the best evidence in the film of her history. As soon as he shouts at her, she runs like a little girl trying to get away from a monster. There is no real threat of violence in that moment. Just that bark. I don’t know how you get incest there. But an abusive father? A man who scared the shit out of his little daughter each time he yelled at her?
Even her version of New York, New York suggests an inability to handle aggression. She is small and vulnerable. She internalizes a song that’s all bravado for most performers. And when her brother sees this, he weeps. It is her sadness and pain expressed.
And as soon as a man pays positive attention to her, she is a pushover. The boss (David) has no game. But he is scoring fast. Why can he seduce Sissy so effortlessly? His masculine impotence is attractive to her. He is safe. He is not mean.
Her brother, on the other hand, seems to be the only parent on whom it is safe for her to rely. (The film doesn’t tell us much about the folks.) And when he no longer offers safe harbor, that is when she attempts suicide.
Now… one of the central themes of the film is Fassbender/Brandon’s focus on married women. The vagaries around the multiple scenes involving this are where I would suggest a lot of the mystery in the film is… not with his relationship with his sister. No question that she stirs the pot and changes this moment in his history. But his story is mostly his own. He never “closes’ on the married women and when he chooses to try to assert his sexual power on the woman’s boyfriend at the bar, it ends up with him getting beaten in the alley.
One could argue that he is heading for bottom at that moment and with his actions afterwards. Again, an interesting conversation. My take would be that he’s not close to bottom… even after he finds his sister bleeding out at the apartment. He might be ready to seek some real help though.
So in conclusion, for now, I think that both or either sib might have been molested as a child. But the more central theme seems to be about control and an abusive male parent. She hides from that power. He embodies that power and then some. He is in extreme control. She has no self-control. I see them as opposite reactions to a similar abuse.
Obviously, there can be many variations on this notion. It doesn’t have to be dad, but dad makes the most sense. Other things could separate the manifestations of their emotional illnesses, but I don’t think one can argue about them being on different paths in response to their past as we meet these two in the film.
I have taken a strong position on this not being brother/sister incest because I just don’t see any indicator of that. I have heard the arguments. If you strongly believe that there is an argument that incest occurred in this film, I would love to hear the argument. But the fact that he is a sex addict and that she has no boundaries… that she doesn’t shrink from him when naked… that she wants to cuddle with him when she is scared or lonely… and that he is upset about her screwing the boss on his living room couch… I don’t see those adding up to much of anything except detritus of the rest of the story.
I truly welcome discussion on this. I do not welcome “you’re an idiot… everyone agrees that it’s incest” or “how dare you have an opinion on this that doesn’t agree with the popular mythology around this picture, you arrogant prig.” It will surely come anyway… but it adds nothing but anger to a conversation about a very smart, very complex film about a subject that most people don’t seem to get.
Why don’t they “get it?” Maybe because as a society, a good looking man who randomly fucks gorgeous women and never wants to see them again is not a sick man, but something to which men aspire. (And no doubt, the blonde in the sports car at the beginning of the film will proudly tell her girlfriends the tale of the beautiful man who took her under the bridge.) And I would agree that serial date George Clooney is probably not a sex addict, though a fear of having intimacy withdrawn seems pretty obvious.
Flip side, scared, needy, boundary-challenged women (and men, for that matter) are hardly a rarity and no one is going to want to identify with Sissy. So something extraordinary must have happened to them.
As things go, I happen to know quite a lot on this subject. I have had friends in program who shared a lot of it with me. I have had friends who went through incest and the emotional waves left behind are not subtle, no matter how well covered. Every story is different. But many of the themes carry over.
I certainly do not have all the answers about Shame. And it is a work of art. I shouldn’t ever feel I have all the answers.
But on the specific issue of incest in the film, I have yet to read a serious argument about why it is a part of this story. Every argument i run into, all well-intended, seems to be based in a kind of disbelief about the lives of sex addicts and other broken people.
But perfectly happy to be proven wrong…