The Compleat Ingmar #15: Shame (1968)

The cliché of an Ingmar Bergman film seems to be that of a melancholy, existentialist treatise on the meaninglessness of life and of relationships, most likely in black and white. You know the kind of thing: people standing at the beach, being depressed. I’ve said so before, but that’s not the Bergman I’ve found, even in films such as The Seventh Seal, and most definitely not in Fanny and Alexander (both of these are yet to come in our journey through Criterion’s amazing box set Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema). Look at something like Scenes from a Marriage and alongside the acrimony, emotional cruelty and existential despair that doubtlessly fuel the conflict between Marianne and Johan, you’ll definitely also find warmth, humaneness and humour.

I rather wish there had been more of the latter in Shame, a film that, while recognisably Bergman in its concerns – and obviously in its cast -, reminded me of Michael Haneke in its relentless grimness. It is perhaps telling that one of the rare scenes where the film displays a sense of humour shows one of its characters to be such a bad shot that he fails to kill a chicken that’s barely half a metre in front of him.

By the end of the film, the chickens have lost their lives nonetheless and that character has become both able and more than willing to use his gun on a human being.

Shame tells of a married couple, Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann), a pair of former violinists who are making a living on a rural island while elsewhere a civil war rages. While the two make an effort of leading a content life, it is clear that things are not all well between the two: Eva wants children, Jan does not, Jan wishes to pretend the war isn’t happening, Eva is disdainful of her husband’s willful ignorance and his weakness. Soon the conflict reaches the island and they are forced to contend with the worsening situation.

In most of the Bergman films we’ve seen so far, the conflicts they depict are almost entirely domestic: men and women who cannot be happy with each other because they struggle to be happy with themselves. Shame is striking for placing marital conflict in an external world torn apart by war and civil strife. (It is downright odd for me to see armed soldiers, tanks and explosions in one of the director’s films.) Many of the themes are familiar: Jan is a failed artist and like so many of Bergman’s men he is clearly the weaker of the two, reacting to their worsening situation first by all but stopping his ears with his fingers and squeezing his eyes shut, then succumbing to the violence around him and becoming more and more brutalised himself. Eva, meanwhile, tries to navigate their new world with a mix of wary pragmatism and the determination not to lose her humanity. Even as she is taken advantage of, she maintains a sense of agency, while Jan ends up finding a grim semblance of agency only when he is handed a gun and pointed in the direction of a sexual rival.

As always, Ullmann and von Sydow do a wonderful job of bringing Bergman’s characters to life, but there is little to alleviate the unreleting bleakness of the film. It doesn’t have the phantasmagoric imagination of the otherwise similarly dark Hour of the Wolf, nor does it have more than the rarest, briefest glimpses of humour. Shame is a strong piece of filmmaking that both continues Bergman’s artistic engagement with his frequent themes and motifs and expands the canvas he uses in surprising ways, but it left me exhausted. The sparkling joys of Smiles of a Summer Night seem far, far away at this point.

The next film in the collection, The Passion of Anna, which also stars Ullmann and von Sydow (as well as Erland Josephson, Johan from Scenes from a Marriage), again seems to be about an unhappy marriage; according to Bergman, the director saw the film as “virtually a sequel” to Shame. There is hope, though: it seems that no chickens are killed in it.

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