#192 Shame

Skammen
(1968, Ingmar Bergman)

”How do you think someone who dreams about us would feel when he wakes up – shame?”

Ingmar Bergman is well-known as the biggest name in classic Swedish cinema, most known for The Seventh Seal due to how much its famous chess-playing Grim Reaper scene has been parodied over the years. Because of this, he was bound to turn up on this blog. We look at Shame, a speculative fiction about war and strained relationships.

Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan (Max von Sydow) are a couple living in a small house on an isolated island, in the midst of a civil war that’s rampaging through Sweden in the near-future. They live off the land, running a small farm and trying to live a normal life despite the growing concerns the war may come to them. As the film progresses, we witness them struggle to hold their relationship together and remain apolitical in an increasingly hostile environment.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this movie. It started out incredibly slowly, mostly sitting around the house as the couple went about their daily lives. The most exciting thing was probably the sudden sight of Eva’s breasts for no reason. Otherwise it was just mundane things everyone does, which initially can seem to be unwatchable were it not for things being a little bit off.

Eva’s random angry outbursts and Jan’s unexpected weepy breakdowns suggest something is hugely wrong, and it’s only through conversations they have with their minimal neighbours that we learn that they’ve been forced to flee and that the political situation is tense. This slow build-up ends up working well for the movie, as we come to identify with the couple as normal people before the big scary war stuff hits hard. We are shown and not told how distant they are from the conflict and therefore feel sorry for them when the conflict catches up.

Hugely helps that both Ullmann and von Sydow put in excellent performances. They work well together, making them always feel like a real married couple, albeit one strained by circumstances beyond their control. There are subtleties in their performance that show this is a couple who love each other but wish everything was different. They don’t express their concerns openly, but there’s always a sense that they understand each other without needing to. They are, in short, one of the most believable screen couples I’ve ever seen.

Which is probably what makes the film work so well at being bleak. Everything bad that happens to them as a result of the war is harrowing because we can see how badly it affects their relationship. This ramps up later in the movie, where one side of the conflict captures them and accuses them of siding with the enemy. A scene where they’re forced to be separated, even if it’s not for a long time, is one of the hardest scenes to watch because we feel the characters’ pain.

We learn little about the conflict surrounding everything, which can be disorienting and a little frustrating, but this feels entirely deliberate. The conflict is a background event, and we’re given the same amount of information the characters are. We’re meant to feel as confused and out of the loop as the leads. Bergman handled this perfectly, because the plot never feels like it’s running away from us despite all the details we’re missing.

Shame, for the most part, is a little-known gem of a movie. It’s emotional without being over-the-top and it’s the right level of confusing and bleak. That said, it does let itself down at the end, where it just puts on the brakes and fizzles out. The movie doesn’t end satisfactorily in my eyes, and no, I don’t mean I was expecting a happy ending; I just wanted a real conclusion and not just aimless wandering into the distance.

Aside from that, I did like Shame, and it definitely feels like a movie you could watch several times and analyse in a million ways due to how many layers of subtleties Bergman and the two leads weaved in. Actually much better than expected.

Starring Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow, Sigge Furst, Gunnar Bjornstrand & Ulf Johansson
Written by Ingmar Bergman
Produced by Lars-Owe Carlberg
Cinematography by Sven Nykvist
Edited by Ulla Ryghe

Favourite Scene: When the couple are forced to separate it’s easily the most harrowing part of the movie, and the most effective
Scene That Bugged Me: The opening scenes felt very bland at times

Watch it if: You like your drama harrowing and intimate
Avoid it if: You’re baffled by the concept of a Swedish civil war

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Posted on June 14, 2013, in 1960s, Drama, Political, Sweden, War and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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