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David Poland

By David Poland

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…

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48 Responses to “SHAME & Incest”

  1. matthew says:

    Well, I certainly hope you didn’t just spoil it with your headline.

  2. David Poland says:

    No… the opposite, Matthew.

  3. Peter says:

    Really good movie, and I agree with DP here, I don’t see any previous incestuous relationship either. Kind of wondering where other people are seeing it.

  4. qwiggles says:

    I don’t see any explicit sign of it either. You’re definitely meant to infer that they have longstanding boundary issues, but my sense is he sees her as an unruly border crosser in general: someone who meddles, insinuates herself into things, spills into spaces, and leaves traces of herself everywhere (he’s frequently picking up after her and looks suffocated every time). For someone with a highly managed routine of vices and an immaculately clean space, this is torturous.

    That’s not to say that incest isn’t hovering in the air at times, particularly in the moment where she accuses him of being “weird.” But it seems to me more like they just share an origin of abuse, then diverged into chilly repression and a needy insistence on intimacy all the time, respectively.

  5. Karl L says:

    Basically, I agree.

    Let me talk about another shot though to explain how I think this movie works in terms of suggestions and paths not quite traveled: The shot right after Brandon is in the hospital with Sissy, he is running in the rain, seemingly towards a dock, and collapses out of… shame, I think we can assume. But shame for his addictions and how he’s treated his sister (and himself) or is it shame that, to deal with this emotional moment when it’s clear his dysfunctions do hurt people, he wants of all things to go find pleasure again? Did he begin running to take his mind off sex and/or sex-as-defense-mechanism, as we see earlier in the movie? Maybe not, but the movie has people asking the question and that is enough to suggest how close some possibilities are for these characters.

    I think that’s why so many think they saw incest, when really they just saw a brother and sister that, at best, seem to border on it with their boundary issues, or at least make quite a few of us ask the question. (Whether we jump to answering yes or wait to watch and contemplate is another thing.) Considering a lot of us don’t have enough personal experience to know what to look for exactly, even what we see may be a stretch. People are making the stretch, I’m guessing, because it makes the movie more interesting, better if were not so sure about those two one way or another…

  6. torpid bunny says:

    Interesting that this page now features a side quote from K. Dunst about the weirdness of nudity or sexy times vis-a-vis exhibition to your extended family. Maybe the austrians said something about this?

  7. Padraic says:

    Great review. I can’t wait to see it. It sounds like the trauma here isn’t a physical me but a mental/emotional one. Fasts bender is the older brother, very successful, and is trying to I’ve up to the standard of what successful, unmarried men are supposed to be doing when they are “killing it” in the big city. The more stressed he gets the more he tries to blow off steam by conquesting women. Sex becomes his crutch here and he can’t separate sex from intimacy.

    Mulligan is the younger sister and is all emotion all the time. She’s feels like she’s in his shadow and always has been so she “gets off” from hyper emotion and causing a scene, but can’t handle the consequences -ie breaking into the house, performing when and where she can so she’s in the spotlight for once. My guess is she scores with the boss in some confused attempt to simultaneously be more like her brother, and help him out at work. She probably thinks that if she sleeps with his boss, his boss will go easier on her brother. When she goes in to cuddle with Fassbender, it’s like shes asking him for affirmation that she has done a good job.

    He freaks it because she’s making him take a closer look at his life, doesn’t like what he sees, and affirms that she is what she fears most – a damsel in distress who screwed up again. The suicide is a gigantic cry for help from someone who feels completely overshadowed.

    Watch this movie with Attonement – the dangers of bottling everything up vs the dangers of bottling nothing up.

  8. Em says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, but the trailer gave me some weird incestuous vibes, so I googled it and found this article. I basically skimmed through it because I don’t want to ruin the movie’s impact for me, but I think a distinction can be made between physical incest and emotional incest. Just like we may argue that a person can be unfaithful to his or her partner without actually engaging in a sexual act, we may argue about the same dichotomy within incest. Maybe when I watch the movie I’ll have more ammo for my argument, but it’s just a thought.

  9. CT says:

    Yes, this is clearly about incest and two people struggling with multiple dysfunctions as adults. Broken boundaries everywhere. The dynamics are all there. Anybody who seriously knows anything about the topic of incest, and its short and long term effects, could be in for a painful ride…and in some cases…the dangers of relapse. The title of the movie “Shame” says it all in its basic form.

  10. David Poland says:

    I should post the director’s comments on this. He is less willing to define the film, happy for people to have their interpretations.

    But he also confirms that incest was not part of the thinking on the part of himself, the co-writer, or the cast.

  11. kate says:

    Hi, I am from Georgia, Tbilisi and I only got opportunity to watch this movie this year, I hope you read my note and i will get an interesting reply, as I read lots of reviews on this movie and the only opinion was yours which became very meaningful to me. first of all I loved the movie, because this is for the first time in a long period when you have an opportunity to think that much while you watch and at the end of the film, when you have the opportunity to have your own versions of both characters, their drama. why it was an icest? – there may be so many answers – as you wrote of course, i have to admit at first sight – incest was one of the major reasons, – but, but, there’s a big but – it was too easy to blame everything on that. anyway the the way these to characters behave when relating each other – there is no any sexual attraction (only from my view)there is some sick relation – when siblings don’t feel discomfort when they are naked. I have to say a little bit about brother-sister relations in my country, and i think mostly it’s the same in other countries as well – if a brother sees when a boss, a friend, friend of a childhood tries to even a kiss her sister there will be a huge fight – and the job is lost, the friend is lost, when it comes on hitting a sister from a persons described above – there may happen a more serious man fight. why i am saying this – because her behavior in the cab, is totally unacceptable, so insulting, so outrage, this moment gave me a right to think that the case is in incest, but no, they both have lost respect to each other and for themselves – that is why that scene takes place, and the only drama in theory for me becomes an abuse. I agree with you mostly in all you wrote. and this movie is so complex that seeking for the reasons for is less we should do. and when speaking about the title of the movie – i think, character of fassbender hates himself, disguises but – he’s not ashamed – for his sex addiction, the shame comes for both siblings, maybe for something that happened in the past, or maybe from their personality, the shame when you cannot fill up the emptiness inside you.
    I really liked this opportunity to talk about this movie, I am a film critic by profession and i have to say that in my country, there’s not much going in movie life, and I don’t get that much opportunity to have such kinds of discussions, and one of the reasons is that when it comes to sex discussions, Georgian people are very closed, it’s not a subject to talk much in families, and when it comes to the movie like this it may be a total collapse; only in a very small and closed group of people are open minded enough to have interesting discussions, when something like this movie appears :). anyway it was pleasure to have an opportunity to express my opinion. 🙂

  12. Sue says:

    I saw this movie without seeing the trailer and with no preconceived notions. It opened at our local Indie theater Friday and had Carey Mulligan in it so I went.
    I left the theater with the distinct impression they had been incestuous. The turning point for me was when she gets in bed to snuggle with her brother. That and his reaction led me to feel and not just think, that a creepy and dark secret (of past incest) was shared between them. It was a very strong gut reaction.
    It also creeped me out how he straddles her practically butt naked when yelling at her at one point in the movie.
    They were too comfortable with each other’s nudity and sexuality.
    In the cab ride leaving the bar, Brandon could have sent them to a hotel for the night or even gone out himself. But he stays while they are making out next to him in the cab and goes inside with them, knowing his boss is hot for quickie sex.
    I felt that he was jealous of his sister, not so much advertly, but hearing her do his boss brought out more than an older sibling, protective type reaction on his part.
    Because he was unable to have meaningful relations with his sexual partners, I felt that his sister had also been a sexual partner since he showed no emotional attachment to her.

  13. leo says:

    Define why she at one point tells her brother “we’re not bad people we jus come from a bad place. And also the cuts.

  14. leo says:

    And plain and simple SHAME,for being just a sex addict,come on now smart people

  15. michael says:

    very interesting and well spoken thoughts on the movie. as a therapist, after watching the movie my first gut response is there is incest.

    shame is obviously the central theme of the movie, and the complete lack and/or dysfunction of boundaries between the two of them speak of a high probability of past incest. allowing for such open nakedness and the hatred and anger that brews is two different sides of the same coin. incredibly close and incredibly distant. that is where shame breeds and these two are steeped in it.

    again, there is no explicit mentioning and the writer may not have meant it to be explicit, just saying that their relationship shows all the signs of incest (and past trauma/abuse which may have been sexual as well as obvious emotional).

    and really incest is not needed to be fully proven nor is it the main problem or origin, it is just one part of the bigger picture of abuse that continues to haunt these two.

  16. sonia says:

    Yeah,incest all the way. Who stands inforn to ftheir brother naked likeit’s no big deal? he smells her scarf the way an old boyfriend woulssmell a girlfriend’s clthes or her pillow.She cuddlestight up to him in bed at night? That’s more than boundary issues. the thing I don’t understand is the blonde at the beginning havnign sex wiht himunder the brige or whatever it was for free??? In understand the prostitute leastt hey are getting paid.

  17. rich says:

    Very sad movie. I agree with you on a lot of points. When I came back from a broken relationship in New Orleans, I surmised this woman was bulimic. In AA I have seen my share of both eating disorders and sexual addiction. Now you can take the drugs out of an addict but you just have a clean drug addict. As far as eating disorders and sex…what do you do?
    I have never seen so many heroin addicts in AA drawn to woman with eating disorders.
    When I came home fairly destroyed, rich brother took me to shrink 1) he thought I was having a breakdown but even more curiously, 2) he was envious of the range of emotions I was exhibiting from tears to laughter. When we told th psychiatrist, we had both been hardcore heroin addicts in our life, he immediately asked if we recalled “any sexual abuse” neither of had but does no preclude the event. Your review was thought provoking.

  18. LC says:

    I think the sexual addiction Fassbender suffers from causes him to sexualize all women, including his sister, and so the scenes where she is nude, where she cuddles in bed with him, where she walks in on him masturbating, and on the couch when she says she wants him to hug her, his first thought is he wants to have sex with her. The fact that she’s his sister is either irrelevant in the moment o lust or adding to the allure, the one taboo he has not crossed yet. But he knows, perhaps from their possible shared history of abuse as children, that incest is wrong, so he lashes out in a way that will push her away, so that she won’t be so physically close to him, so that he can’t so easily sexualize her.

    Or perhaps he is motivated less by morals and shared trauma and more by a fear of rejection. Coming on to your sister would be a major leap of faith and it would come with a high likelihood of rejection.

    Her actions, seemingly sexual to him and to the audience, are really familial. She is in need of family and the sexual nature of it doesn’t cross her mind. Why can’t she be nude with her brother? It’s the same as being nude in front of a gay guy or in front of one of her female friends.

    Fassbender’s response, which seems to the audience to be hostile to his sister, is actually barely-restrained lust. The subtext in each boundary-crossing scene with his sister is Fassbender screaming, “Can’t you see that what you are doing is turning me on? I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help it, and i suspect you are doing it on purpose, but I know you don’t really want it, and it’s driving me crazy. Why are you cock teasing me and putting me in an impossible situation? Stop it!”

    So I think the sister is oblivious to the incest desires of her brother, and her lack of boundaries and suicidal tendencies and his desire for incest and sex addiction are all rooted in shared childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by a trusted adult.

  19. Anne says:

    I watched Shame last night and really liked it. I had read reviews of it earlier but could only remember that the film dealt with strong sexuality. I went away from the film feeling that there might have been a incestuous relationship between the brother and sister but not necessarily. For sure, both people had distorted views of sexual matters……her nonreaction to him walking in on her naked after the shower was telling I thought. I felt she was pursuing the brother in a sexual manner, and the repeated phone messages are a good example of that. She sounded like a spurred lover instead of a spurred sister. But this is what makes a great movie…the director not spelling out the premise of the movie but allowing us to come to that premise ourselves. Shame is such an appropriate title for this film but as I write here, I think the title lends itself to the concept of incest between the two. Sexual addiction, of it’s own, is not necessarily shameful…at least not in the world that these characters live in.

  20. Charlotte says:

    First of all, bloody amazing film! Loved reading all the comments. My personal view is that when she says we are not bad people, it is suggesting that sexual abuse as children was committed and by the father. As Brandon is older he feels guilty that he didn’t protect her, which is why he cries when she sings. I think he is so angry and it’s sex what has made him so angry. He uses women as he is hating his mother who obviously ignored or turned blind eye. He wants to protect his sister but can’t as I believe boundaries were crossed between them, but they had no choice, maybe made to be sexual with each other for other peoples pleasure, so their own relationship is completely dysfunctional and he wants to switch off and live with a secret, and she wants to be weak and cry for help to express her shame. . . If someone wants to kll themselves or is so angry there is not just a little childhood trauma, it was huge. . . .
    Also, they both use sex in different ways, she uses it to get attention and be weak and he uses it to get rid of guilt, and feel strong. . . It’s all about control and losing control, to try and live a life and be normal when your childhood has left you in terrible trauma.

  21. Charlotte says:

    And I forgot to say that I think the father sexually abused the girl as she is always looking for a father figure in her brother, he is strong and when she gets into bed with him she wanting her father to comfort her, and when she is eating, she wants him to say well done, or when she sings she is always looking for validation that she is good and worthy.

  22. Nodenial says:

    For any movie to be incestuous in nature, one does not have to see two siblings having sex.

    Keeping in mind that every scene is specifically crafted, there is a definite ‘incestuous air’ created between the brother and sister. There is no physical scene that says it occured but it is definitely always ‘in the air’.

    Just because it’s wrong to us, we can’t deny that the implication wasn’t there because it clearly was. As to whether they did actually have sex…we will never know 100% because the movie is built that way.

  23. Laurie Collier says:

    I appreciated your review because it is all about personal interpretation which is one of the reasons that Shame is a work of art and not a movie where it would be silly to even attempt a personal interpretation. I didn’t really get the impression that Sissy and Brandon had an incestuous relationship but after reading other peoples interpretations I thought that was a possibility. They were definitely open with nudity but that depends on your family. They were also obviously very closely tied emotionally, I don’t mean close as in siblings who hang out I mean they are emotionally tied. The movie for me was about the effects of child abuse. I think that was the writers intention but it is alluded to rather than spelled out. It would be my interpretation even if she had not said that line about coming from a bad place. This is because I am surrounded by people who were abused as children, sexually and physically and emotionally. I have also been around addicts my whole life some who were abused some not but sexual addiction in particular is often a result of child sexual abuse. Shame is one of the main attributes of a victim of sexual abuse, especially if it is never dealt with or spoken of. A mountain of shame that eats the person up and causes compulsive behavior to try to push away the anxiety, fear, and shame. The two characters in this movie are very expressive of all of these feelings especially Michael Fassbender, he was incredible. He was able to show so much just with his face, by the end the absolute anguish of such a lonely and miserable man had come out and it was volcanic. Great actor, and a theme that is actually terribly under represented. How many movies even touch on child abuse let alone sexual abuse let alone sexual abuse of boys? Not many and it ain’t that uncommon of an occurrence unfortunately.

  24. Laurie Collier says:

    One last thing I have to say before stopping reading people’s interpretations because the more I read the more annoyed I get. A lot of people just assume this guy is a jerk. Many people also assume it is the girl who was abused, she probably was, she has obviously suffered. What gets me mad is that very few people assume he was abused, some think maybe he knew that she was being abused and felt guilty. What the hell people, men are abused, both sexually and physically and emotionally just like girls. Girls may be more likely to be sexually abused but it is not rare for boys, they say one in six girls one in ten boys but male abuse is under reported because men are less likely to discuss having been abused. Also, like I said before, I have been around more than my share of abuse victims and addicts, and I work with the prison population and rarely is a person as f’d up as Brandon for no reason.

  25. David Poland says:

    I think it’s clear that both siblings are trying to recover from what happened in their childhood.

    But men having sexual conquests is seen as “winning,” by many people… and often, it is a desperate effort on the part of the conqueror. In this film, his inability to allow himself intimacy is clear and completely dysfunctional.

  26. Steve says:

    I watched it yesterday and I agree. I don’t think there necessarily has to have been incest between them for everything in the film to happen as it did, so your interpretation is viable and probably correct. However, I wouldn’t 100% dismiss something along incest lines. I do think they came from an abusive situation (“we just come from a bad place”). Whatever is in their past, I think she reminds him of it but he obviously loves her too.

  27. Lily says:

    Wow. As a woman who grew up with 3 brothers, I would never, ever, ever let one of them see me naked, nor try to cuddle with them in bed or get fucked within earshot of one of them. All 3 of those scenarios are unthinkable. This film absolutely is about incest… the only question is did it happen in the past or is it moving in that direction in the present or both. It felt like Sissy was the one goading him and he was trying to resist. The sexual psyche of men and women are very different; it makes it hard to tell. At the very least, incestual thoughts were in his mind and her behavior around her brother was absolutely and entirely abnormal unless normal sexual boundaries had already been breached.

  28. Lily says:

    I should add that I got the impression that the incestual relationship they shared was forced upon them. I dated a guy who was almost certainly sleeping with his sister, or at the very least, they were emotionally bound to the point of unhealthiness and they grew up in a very abusive household. I did too, actually, but, luckily it was not sexual in the way that would cause incest or thoughts of incest though I will say, extensive emotional abuse can warp your ideas of sex only because it is such an intimate act, a vulnerable act and also an act that allows control or the giving up of control, depending. Some people, after abuse of any kind, go all out, screwing everyone, some retreat into a shell. I agree that Brandon was abused as well. I suppose there is a small chance Sissy was so emotionally damaged that she would offer herself sexually to him (which, she was clearly doing) because it was somehow a learned behavior or the only way to communicate and try to bond with him and he had rejected her advances, but I find it unlikely that they had not already crossed the line. I’m not blaming them, it’s obvious something very bad occurred.

  29. JJY says:

    I think it would be over simplifying McQueen’s subtextual undertones through out the film to draw the conclusion that he was inferring some past incest, sexual desire or incestuous temptation that shapes the awkward relationship/interaction between the two siblings. I think, that the uninhibited nudity between the brother and sister actually infers just the opposite – that they are truely only vulnerable to each other, and are the only two who know each other’s joint secret traumatic past. That they are essentially ‘bare’, ‘raw’ and open – and although to the audience and in the minds of any normal person such nudity in a brother and sister relationship may seem disturbing, in the film I think it is trying to differentiate the sexual kind of nakedness which is bluntly exemplified by women being used for sex by Brandon and the nakedness in the more metaphorical or symbolic sense of being vulnerable as shared between the two the way that is relevant to the two characters only in the film. They share the same shame carried and burdened on them from their past and I think thats what the nudity between those two are signifying rather than incest. And I think that is why he is constantly ‘irritated’ by Sissy – because it hurts for him to be confronted by the reminder. She is a symbol of his past, she is the embodiment of the trauma, and all the weaknesses in him that combine to make him behave the way he does. He cares about Sissy, and that also hurts him even further – he sees the way she acts out and neither can help each other. I also think, the film does not assume that just because Brandon is a sex addict, he will sexualise or have absolutely no boundaries – ie. he is physically unable to essentially ‘fuck’ Marianne because either, she is not anonymous to him, or he actually has feelings for her. I think it is precisely this kind of paradoxical treatment of opposites so subtly alluded by McQueen that makes this film that requires more than a few layers of interpretation…it is deep, and incredibly sad. The director I dont think at any point in the film spoon feeds to the viewer what he wants them to see, and this is what I love about this film. In my opinion the director is not really asking the audience to simply be a voyeur or a fly on the wall of a man’s torment consumed by his sex addiction – but rather for them to sink into the world of a man reliving on a daily basis the torture and the ramifications of the unnamed traumatic abuse in his past that has perfectly crippled him. A very spontaneous response/review on my part so its probably not very eloquently put at all but I have been obsessing over this film lately 1. out of excitement of discovering the unbelievably talented Michael Fassbender of late, and 2. this film really just resonates with me as I can relate to certain issues I feel are addressed in the film by the director (and specifically I do not believe he is alluding to incest) 3. it has so many layers of which none are spelled out or spoon fed to you, and the real tragedy is so much bigger than just the sex addiction.

  30. ted says:

    I inferred from the movie that the previous trauma that brother and sister have experienced messed them both up differently. In the sister’s case, she seems inordinately desperate to be loved and lacking of a healthy barometer as to how to fulfill her emotional needs. She looks for intimacy with casual sex with her brother’s boss, and then climbs into bed to cuddle with her brother whom she is desperately trying to connect emotionally with the entire movie. Her brother, however, acts cold and distant hiding his emotions behind sex and jogging. He escapes having to confront his own feelings by obsessively engaging in, what should be, pleasurable physical activity. His only emotional moment (other than anger, rage, depression, etc..) is his reaction to his sister’s suicide attempt. I choose to see the ending of the film as the protagonist reacting to an obviously alluring, previously pursued sex interest, with a mixture of desire and regret, and possibly, guilt considering her wedding band. He may be on the verge of allowing himself to be emotionally empathetic with the woman, thus taking a small step to addressing addictive avoidance of his own deeper feelings.

  31. Sarah says:

    Doesn’t Brendon say something along the lines of “I’m not going to fuck you again”to his sister?

  32. Anon says:

    Haha no I don’t think he does actually.

    There might be a bit less debate if he had.

  33. Etguild2 says:

    I don’t know why we’re still talking about this, but there was a much more direct American indie re: incest that came out this year called “The Unspeakable Act.” It wasn’t my cup of tea (though it isn’t explicit by any means), but it was well made and garnered good reviews. It’s pretty much the opposite of “Shame,” in that it isn’t sexually explicit, but is verbally so and tackles it directly without relying on subtext.

  34. Ray Pride says:

    Dan Sallitt’s writing and direction is matched by his leads, especially the younger sister. Unholy heck!

  35. Renee says:

    As a survivor of incest I can tell you that there was definitely an incestuous relationship that occurred between the siblings. I felt they had grown up in a home where a parent was sexually abusive and encouraged it between siblings. It happens in the world. Watch a film called Just Melvin, Just Evil. Very complex relationships of love and hate at the same time. The greatest thing a survivor has to overcome is the SHAME. I’m not surprised that people could not understand the deeper levels of this film or read it. Only those who have been through sexual abuse will connect the dots on a deeper level.

  36. Becky says:

    Please! What did Sissy say to Brandon in the hospital in almost the last scene?

  37. shabana says:

    she calls him a shithead

  38. shabana says:

    This is a great review. Truly thoughtful and intelligent, great comments as well. I identify as both a sex and love addict, go to SLAA meetings, and think there may have been an incestuous relationship between the siblings based on the examples above including the moment when he jumps on top of her and yells in her face wearing nothing but a towel. But also when she says, “Don’t talk to me about a sex life, Brandon, not you!” Why not him? Because he molested her? I do believe they come from a bad place, but what that bad place made them do with each other is still a mystery. I also wonder what kind of trauma they endured: physical, sexual, emotional, all of the above or just extreme neglect? Hard to say. Great haunting and accurate film. I thought maybe Brandon couldn’t get it up with his co worker because of all the coke he did, until he fucked the blonde girl right after. He also paid for sex and had tons of porn of the extreme kind, even at work. that’ s not normal. I also wondered if he was masturbating at work or just going number 2.

  39. Brian says:

    I don’t think it takes much critical assessment to figure out the underlying subject matter that this film is using its main character for. He and his sister had shared an unusual, traumatizing childhood that is either a past incest relationship together, being both molested as children by a parent/guardian/other adult figure or perhaps both situations.
    He had done everything he could to forget about what happened in his past with only one lasting behavior: his sex addiction. When his sister arrives out of nowhere things get uncomfortable and the distain towards each other is thrown back and forth as they subtly look at how they have coped with the trauma differently. It gets to the point where they both spiral out of control. He no longer can balance his normal life and sex addiction and she commits suicide to not only end her own suffering but I think in some hopeless attempt to help Brandon. To remove herself from being that painful reminder of what happened.

  40. Shiloh says:

    Why I began thinking the two had had an incest relationship–most likely forced upon them by parent or someone who was older and had control over the two–is all in the way that Brandon looked at Sissy when she was naked in the shower… does anyone else know what I mean? It was very sexual.

  41. Shiloh says:

    Also, I find it very pretentious that Fastbender, Mulligan and McQueen in interviews become annoyed when people ask what in fact the back story was. They say and act as though the back story does not matter. I think that is total bullshit. People know that nymphomaniacs exist and I’m sure anyone that looks into the disorder at all is aware of what the effects entail so what happens isn’t so important. Now WHY what happens happens is the interesting aspect, the part that inspires compassion in people. I like understand people and understanding what circumstances in their lives compel to them to lead sad or self destructive or just plain awful lives. I want to feel compassion and empathy. And that they are not willing to share their back story is so very upsetting and pretentious.

  42. anwar says:

    Great review and opinions

    I am guessing that in childhood sis was sexually abused and her brother would heal her naked and bruised body, that is why she did not mind her brother seeing her naked. Just my 2 cents.

  43. santas lil elf says:

    The entire movie is about MF’s character not being able to have “normal” sex or a “normal” relationship because he has incestuous issues with his sister. Either they f***ed when they were teenagers, or f***ed as younger adults and both have been messed up by it ever since.

    This is why it freaks him out to have a normal intimate relationship with a woman and why he can’t get it up; that kind of relational closeness is too similar to what he probably had with his sister before they crossed the line & his tortured guilty psyche cannot go there.

    So he has mindless, unattached sex with everyone else as a way to distance himself from the actual psychological intimacy of sex with someone he cares about.

  44. CyrJ says:

    I largely agree with the analysis in the original post — except that I think it’s very clearly indicated that Brandon is *struggling with an incestuous attraction* to his sister. I don’t see any indication from her that it was ever consummated or that it’s the primary issue that screwed them both up (abuse by a father figure does seem the likeliest candidate there). But it’s clearly flagged in several scenes that it’s an issue for *him* and perhaps has been for a long time, which is why he’s so uncomfortable having any intimacy with her (or intimacy generally).

    – The scene where he’s watching porn on his laptop, for example, and then overhears her overwrought conversation with the lover she’d come to town hoping to see; the sound of her voice clearly overrides the porn as a compelling erotic stimulus.

    – The scene where his boss seduces her. Yes, this would be a shitty situation for any sibling, but his reaction and his anguish is extreme. Moreover, the way he keeps fixating and harping on it — to the point of making the mistake of trying to lecture her about her sex life when she knows perfectly well he’s a sex addict — is telling of something more than just boundary issues.

    – The scene where he climbs on top of her feels like a moment of that incestuous lust — and all the conflict and shame and anger that come with it — coming very, very close to cresting the surface. And if memory serves it’s that moment that culminates with him promising to cast her out and then going out on what is essentially a sex bender, an extreme push away from the horror that almost manifested.

    So I can agree with santas lil elf above in this much — while I don’t think incest actually happened, incestuous desire is a core part of the shame driving Brandon’s character and poisoning his relationship with Sissy.

  45. Christian says:

    I just watched the movie for the first time and honestly the prospect of incest hadn’t crossed my mind as a serious part of the film until I read your review. You challenged us to come up with arguments for how the movie depicts incest, so here’s my shot:

    The shame Brandon feels in the movie is of his past sexual relationship with his sister. His promiscuous sexual addiction is fueled by his desire to be normal. He hates himself for what he and his sister did in the past because he knows it was wrong, and so to mask his shame, and to escape from it, he engages in rampant sexual activities on a regular basis.

    Unlike her brother, Sissy, for whatever reason, feels no shame for what they did in the past. In fact she appears to have enjoyed it, hence her “boundary issue”. When we first meet her standing nude in the shower she tosses the towel off exposing her naked body to her brother, giving him a slight smirk. Brandon responds by throwing the towel back with a look of disgust.

    My guess is they grew up in an abusive home, and having no one else to turn to for release they found comfort in each other. After moving to the U.S. Brandon feels shame and wants desperately to be like everybody else, so he indulges to get his mind off of his shame. Sissy, on the other hand, never really moved on. She tried, as we see in her boyfriend from LA and Brandon’s boss, but ultimately the only love she’s perceived to be real was from her brother.

    Sissy’s inability to move on causes her to be jealous which she demonstrates by: finding the earring in Brandon’s apartment (which she throws in an act of frustration) asking if she was hot, asking if Brandon thinks she looks fat, caring so much what he thinks about her, glaring at the private chat girl, etc

    Sissy continually pushing Brandon’s boundaries causes him to lash out in different ways: while hearing and watching people have sex doesn’t faze him, the involvement of his sister makes his shame become overwhelming because it reminds him too much of their past, so to find relief he goes for a run; we know from the beginning of the movie that he doesn’t sleep with clothes on, so when she gets into bed with him, wrapping her arm around him, his shame comes out in the form of barking at her.

    In the course of the movie we see a change in Brandon: his new found respect for commitment (which we later see when he decides not to have sex with Elizabeth, and when he doesn’t peruse the married woman on the subway). After the date he goes home to find some sexual relief by masturbating in the bathroom when Sissy walks in, causing his shame to rear its head. Upon seeing what he was doing she becomes giddy, Brandon on the other hand gets mad, asking if she was spying on him and demanding she tell him what she wants from him and why she came to his apartment in the first place.

    After his argument with Sissy, Brandon goes out to find relief from his shame of incest by searching for something else he can feel shame about: a straight guy being blown by another guy, a threesome, and hitting on a girl while her boyfriend was with her.

    As the film wraps up Brandon realizes two major things: first off how much he does love his sister (in a non-sexual way) which he realizes after finding her in a pool of her own blood; and secondly that his promiscuous behavior wasn’t the solution to his shame, but what he really needed was a healthy long-lasting relationship. When he’s sobbing on the pier at the end he’s regretting the rash decisions he made in the name of escaping his shame, realizing that what he had needed was love that wasn’t so much physical as it was emotional, the opposite of what he had sought out.

    I hope this made some sense.

  46. adam says:

    Excellent write up. I would add that while there is no evidence of incest, there is evidence of something called covert emotional incest between the siblings. It’s basically incest with feelings of intimacy rather than physcial sex. When with a sibling who uses emotional incest, it can really scar since it’s rooted in childhood crisis. Each time she crosses his boundary emotionally, he is bearing the burden of the family system. Why? Because as Sissy didn’t receive love as you mentioned from her parents, she manages it be seeking intimacy from Brandon. Each time he accommodates for her, the more he harms his own intimate needs. This of course, can lead to sex addiction!

  47. Kristina says:

    Dunno… I feel I’ve seen love there. Love so intence that its almost hatred..
    Something horrible happened in the past.. to both of them… Maybe he feels he should have protected her.. but he was just a little boy… Maybe thats were Shame comes from…
    He fucks and fucks everything that moves… cannot stop… it helps him to forget…only for a short while…
    He is not a freak nor he is broken… he is just extremely angry at the Past and extremely fragile towards his sister… to the extend that he cannot bare..
    Actually a beautiful movie..

    Why?.. oh…the last sceene…

  48. SophieR says:

    I have a couple of points that stick in my mind that I might have missed in your review but I don’t think I saw; the scene when Brandon is masturbating in the bathroom and Sissy walks in, we see her walk away smiling/giggling, and Brandon’s reaction to that is wrapping himself (loosely) in a towel and chasing after her, to then sit on top of his little sister as his towel is unraveling too which Sissy at first seems to take as a joke, then says he is hurting her and when Brandon gets off she taunts him, calling him a freak and then almost immediately apologising. I hadn’t heard of the film before seeing it on Netflix (UK) and from the answer phone messages at the beginning, I thought they were from a girlfriend or ex that Brandon had tried to move on from. Then when he thinks his apartment has been broken into and sees her naked, I though oh okay thats the overly attached ex/girlfriend from the voicemail (I also was initially confused as she’s named Sissy and Brandon calls her sis a couple times so I was unsure if she was the ex named Sissy or his sister, nicknamed sissy). My last point was the phone call before the suicide attempt, voiceover heard during the threesome scene, Sissy says “We’re not bad people, we’ve just come from a bad place” these all accumulated and left me with the idea of incest; I thought maybe their parent/s or a religious leader or someone of authority abused them or made them behave sexually toward each other, or that they were both abused and found comfort within each others understanding but wanted to deal with it differently, Sissy wants to be loved and looked after, Brandon wants to ignore the trauma and move on.

    (these are just the thought of a 19yo girl with an interest in sexual psychology but no actual knowledge into it)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon