by Alison Felus
Just a few weeks after I saw Shame in the theater for the first time, my younger sister moved in with me. (I know, right?) Unlike the little that’s revealed of Brandon and Sissy’s backstory in the film, I knew ours all too well: mother dead from cancer in 1987, father put into a nursing home after a debilitating stroke in 2004, bipolar brother living on the other side of the country since 2007.
What I didn’t know, until my boyfriend delicately pointed out the possibility upon meeting her for the first time, is that my sister is autistic. High-functioning enough to have managed to complete a bachelor’s degree over the course of about eight years, but still: autistic, severely depressed, with no money and nowhere else to go. So.
In Brandon and Sissy’s fight near the end of the movie, the one that catalyzes their respective binges of nastiness that make up the film’s climax, they bitterly debate the terms of their relationship.
“I make you angry all the time. And I don’t know why.”
“No. You trap me. You force me into a corner and you trap me. I’ve got nowhere else to go. I mean, what sort of fucking shit is that?”
“You’re my brother.”
“So what. I’m responsible for you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you fucking are.”
“No, I didn’t give birth to you. I didn’t bring you into this world.”
“You’re my brother. I’m your sister. We’re family. We’re meant to look after each other.”
“You’re not looking after me. I’m looking after myself.”
“I’m trying to help you.”
“How are you helping me, huh? How are you helping me? You come in here and you’re a weight on me. Do you understand me? You’re a burden. You’re just fuckin’ dragging me down. How are you helping me? You can’t even clean up after yourself. Stop playing the victim.”
As unflattering as it is to admit, I have had these very same arguments with my sister on more than one occasion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that has quite so accurately portrayed this kind of conflict—not just the essence of the interpersonal dynamics, but also the sickening rage that bubbles up inside me in the moments when it becomes clear to me that my life is not, and possibly never has been, my own. As much as I care for my sister and grieve for her obvious struggles, there’s no denying that a very real, very angry part of me starts shrieking in protest when I see that I’m expected to pretty much single-handedly solve a problem that I didn’t create.
"The shame of the title isn’t about depraved sexual predilections or scarred wrists; it’s the shame of wanting to run away from who you are and the things that made you that way, and the compounded shame of having those feelings in the first place."
We’re clearly meant to sympathize with the case Sissy makes, both in this scene and others, for their taking care of each other, especially given the narcissistic light in which Brandon’s behavior is portrayed. But in the dark of the theater, my chest constricted and my blood pressure rose as I instinctively aligned myself with his desperate desire to just be left alone. His life of one-night stands, internet porn, and cold leftover Chinese takeout might be hollow and unfulfilling, but at least it belongs to him and him alone.
As Chinatown’s screenwriter Robert Towne once said, “A movie, I think, is really only four or five moments between two people; the rest of it exists to give those moments their impact and resonance.” Even though director and co-screenwriter Steve McQueen (Hunger, 12 Years a Slave) resists giving us as viewers much in the way of explanation for Brandon and Sissy’s familial tensions, to me, the whole point of Shame is in the confrontation scene I describe above. It’s not about Brandon’s porn addiction or his inability to sustain an adult relationship; it’s not about Sissy’s flibbertigibbet career as a jazz singer or her own relationship problems. The shame of the title isn’t about depraved sexual predilections or scarred wrists; it’s the shame of wanting to run away from who you are and the things that made you that way, and the compounded shame of having those feelings in the first place.
Some reviewers have speculated that there are incestuous undertones to Brandon and Sissy’s relationship—they’re constantly barging in on each other naked in the bathroom, he wrestles her down onto the couch while clad in nothing more than a loosely draped white towel that falls off eventually anyway, she tip-toes into his room and crawls into bed with him in the middle of the night, claiming that she’s cold. If read in the light of sex being the most important part of this movie, then sure, those exchanges make a pretty convincing argument. But if, as I read it, the film is primarily concerned with tracing the ways that unacknowledged family trauma infects even benign daily activities, these moments signal the characters’ blindness to how haunted they are by their own dysfunction, even when it is actually standing naked in front of them.
It’s no mistake that the one prolonged moment of affectionate warmth that they share, the morning after her arrival, is in the subway. In one sense, their bond is bedrock, the fundamental truth underlying all the other bullshit. But in a larger sense, the underworld is the only place they can openly relate to each other. Subterranean darkness is the only safety they know, the absence of light the only way they can recognize each other. Offering monetary aid that’s refused with kindness, goofing about a piece of errant fluff—the tenderness is shy, halting, nearly furtive. Their playfulness is almost ratlike, clearly the mode they both prefer for slinking under the radar, creating as much havoc as they can until they’re busted.
By contrast, the emotion they both struggle to hold back during her rendition of “New York, New York” in the glittering club high above the city streets is too much: too pristine, too pure, too uncut—it threatens and ultimately overwhelms their tentative peace. It’s too high, too raw, too honest, too visible. It can’t survive at that altitude; in their own ways, they’re driven to choke the life out of it.
Though Brandon rails against the idea of marriage on his spectacularly awkward first date with his coworker Marianne, it’s the longevity of commitment that he’s clearly uncomfortable with, which is precisely the thing he can’t wiggle out of with Sissy. He admits that the longest relationship he ever had lasted only four months. Even so, girlfriends (and cam girls) may come and go, but family is forever. Regardless of whether or not you ever speak to your family again, as Sissy fears will happen if she leaves Brandon’s apartment, that doesn’t make you any less related to them. The bond of blood can’t be refuted, and when Sissy opens her veins on his bathroom floor, that’s exactly the point she ends up making.
Brandon, though, with his borderline OCD—revealed by his frantic wipe-down of the toilet seat where he goes to jerk off midday, or his scolding of Sissy to use a glass instead of chugging orange juice straight from the container—is above all obsessed with maintaining control over his life, allowing only for the messes that he creates himself. The literal messes that Sissy makes in his apartment (his withering disdain for her fuzzy scarf discarded on the living room floor is very funny) or the interpersonal messes she creates in his life (by having sex with his married horndog boss) drive him buggy, to a degree that feels less like the response of a grown man and more like, perhaps, a 16-year-old boy guarding his bedroom and belongings. Considering that Brandon mentions to Marianne that his family moved to the States from Ireland when he was 16, this seemingly trivial fact actually serves as a potent indicator of his intensely arrested development.
Remaining frozen in a 16 year old’s state of mind (and loins) has clearly limited not only his ability to sustain relationships with other people but has also trapped his sexuality in an exhausting cycle of penetration, missing—as Marianne points out to him with pity—the possibility of silent, loving connection.
These days I go back and forth between the apartment where my sister lives, for which I pay the rent, and the apartment where I cohabitate with my boyfriend. Much like Brandon straps on his headphones to find isolation and independence on a jog through the streets of Manhattan, I’ll often find myself similarly tethered to my iPod, taking the long way around Chicago’s Loop on the el train, carving out a bit of breathing room for myself where I can.
Just as Shame cuts abruptly to black at the end, leaving unresolved the question of whether Brandon has modified his behavior at all, the question of what I’m supposed to do about my own sister likewise remains unanswered. Though we’ve stumbled into our own kind of peace over the past two years, have my attempts to help her actually done any good at all? Though she seems superficially more stable at the moment, will it all fall apart, bloodily, when my lease ends this spring, or if I simply decide I can’t take the stress anymore? What form would my own hypothetical version of an all-night sex spree take, if my frustration boils over to the point where I’m driven to act out on it?
Before it gets that bad, though, maybe I should simply listen to her sing.