Or not so shameful. Whatever.
But first: the backstory you don’t care about:
I try to keep track of all the new movies that come out into movie theaters (I’m always refining my methods, so I do and have missed things), and for obvious reasons a movie about a sex addict whose life is interrupted when his sister moves in with him caught my attention. This might be a shame-free blog but I do not lead a shame-free life, so I decided against seeing such a film (especially one with an NC-17 rating) in theaters and EAGERLY anticipated its release for home viewing. Skimming online I saw someone ask the question that was on my mind: “So does Fassbender [expletive omitted] his sister or what?” In my mind it was worded slightly differently, but the gist was the same. My hopes for incest were high – and not just intentional subtext, but actual consummation. I was hoping, and a part of me actually thought, that the sex addiction was more of a supporting player in the incest storyline, and that the titular “shame” was related to the incest.
If you’ve seen the movie then you know that sadly that’s not the case. Fassbender does not, in fact, [expletive omitted] his sister. Furthermore, this movie is a very gritty, unglamorized look at sex addiction (though it’s more of a character study than an “issue” film), and is most thoroughly unsexy and unerotic. (As one reviewer pointed out, erotica is “all about creating a fantasy of perfection and control”; Shame, on the other hand, is about “weakness and compulsion. It’s not about the joy of sex. It’s about the utter despair it can’t conceal”.) So I was disappointed. Not because it was bad, but because it was not what I was expecting and not what I had been hoping for.
If the “strange and interesting relationship” (to quote director Steven McQueen) had taken me entirely by surprise I might have written an excited entry that very night, but as it was, I put the movie away for another day – and that day is today!
There’s demand and then there’s DEMAND, and I just couldn’t deny you all any longer. (Especially since it’s just a movie and not a TV show and a much less daunting task. Though, as you can see, this is still quite a lengthy entry.) For those of you growing annoyed at my fruitless talk about ongoing projects, I apologize. I do have ongoing projects (they’ve been started!), some of them have been ongoing since Christmas time, and I’m not just talking about my growing to-do list, but nothing is near ready to publish. But I am deeply honored by your interest and your loyalty to this blog.
Shame is an intense movie. Heavy. Dark. Uncomfortable. 100 minutes without reprieve. But it’s beautiful, and haunting, and somehow authentic, even if the characters are extremes. I can appreciate it, even if I, personally, prefer my movies a little lighter, and my incest ships with a little less screaming.
Brandon Sullivan (played by Michael Fassbender) is a successful businessman in New York. He avoids intimacy and relationships, but compulsively consumes porn and pursues anonymous sex with one night stands and prostitutes.
His younger sister (the script indicates she’s about 5 years younger), Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who can never get her life together, moves in with him when she has nowhere else to go, slowly unraveling his carefully fabricated life.
The plot is simple: Brandon comes home one day to find Sissy, who, after reaching out to Brandon unsuccessfully through messages, has come to crash at his apartment. He finds it increasingly difficult to hide his sex-driven lifestyle from her and his independent, introverted personality clashes violently with her extreme extroverted neediness. Growing ashamed of his habits, he makes an effort to reform and goes on a date with a colleague, but his difficulty with intimacy leads to that relationship failing. After an ugly fight with Sissy, he relapses completely and she attempts to kill herself. He ignores her messages, in which she tells him, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place”, a firm if ambiguous hint that there is a shared darkness in their past. He returns home in time to save her and has to face the destructive reality of his problems, but the ending, while it allows for some hope, leaves it unclear whether he will recover from his addiction or not.
McQueen’s extremely visual style leaves most of the interpretations up to us. He depicts but he does not explain. He has a “dislike of convention exposition”.
Because Shame leaves so much up to the viewer, I decided I didn’t want to write this thing until I had read up on it a little. I had been informed (thanks vangiekitty!) that it was part of the original script (not the final draft/shooting script) for Brandon and Sissy to have a history of being abused (explicitly stated), and this made me feel like I would have a better understanding of the film if I sought out some extra information.
In general, I like ignorance, because ignorance is bliss. The chance of finding some quote that almost makes your ship canon is not the worth the risk of finding a quote that practically dismantles it. But when participating in fandom, and particularly when writing meta, I feel like I’m faking it unless I’ve done some research. (But sometimes, if I’m lazy or if I don’t think there’s anything to find, then I won’t bother.)
I state this so frequently that you’re probably getting tired of hearing it, but I’ll say again that I don’t really think that authorial intent matters. The consumer has the right to interpret the material however they want to as long as it’s based on canon evidence. (And beyond that, I believe very strongly in our freedom to depart from the canon in fanfiction and other creations if we want to.)
I think McQueen fundamentally agrees, and perhaps far more than any other given director, although any creator is going to struggle against what they might consider to be a misinterpretation of their work. I know that even though I strongly believe that authorial intent does not matter, if someone interprets something I have written in a way that I did not intend, it is going to bother me.
1.) Is the incest subtext there?
2.) If so, is the subtext or lack of subtext intentional?
3.) Do we ship it?
And the answers to these questions are not necessarily connected, and aren’t necessarily the same.
I do ship it, so I’m going to write from the standpoint of someone who wants to see these characters together. And I’m going to argue that the subtext is there. So the question remains of whether the incest subtext was intentional or not. And that is a tough question to answer for this film.
McQueen is a careful director. He worked previously in nonverbal media, so his experience is in what is seen and not what is said. He paints pictures, and when he paints those pictures he’s going to be thinking about what the person looking at the picture is going to see. So I will argue that in some of these scenes between Brandon and Sissy it would be impossible for him not to realize that the viewer is going to see suggestiveness of an incestuous nature, whether he had written those scenes as suggestive or not.
While the opinion that there is a suggestiveness between Brandon and Sissy is common, it is not universal And sadly, most of my research has indicated that the suggestiveness between Brandon and Sissy was not intended. It is never a subjtect that McQueen or the actors bring up themselves in interviews. And in most interviews it didn’t come up at all. The couple of times the question was asked directly, McQueen was cagey and Carey Mulligan flatly denied it.
For example, here’s an excerpt from an interview with Carey Mulligan:
Q: How did you view the relationship between Brandon and Sissy? There are some really uncomfortable moments between them, specifically when he’s talking to her naked in the shower and when they fight while he’s naked on top of her. Were you able to find ways to relate to and understand these two?
MULLIGAN: Yeah. We talked in broad strokes about what happened to them when they were younger, that made them whoever they are. It was very obvious that there was a series of events, that happened when they were children, that has led them to behaving the way that they are. For clarity’s sake, it’s definitely not incest, although that seems to be floating around. The only reason I say that is that people have been saying it and it was never a conversation. It just wasn’t something we talked about, so it’s strange.
It’s possible that she means only that there isn’t any incest in their past, that this bad thing that happened to them when they were younger wasn’t that the two of them had sex with each other. But given the question that she’s asked, I feel like her answer is more encompassing than that. (However, there is a positive spin to take away from that: perhaps she’s just trying to make clear that some incest between them is not what screwed them up.)
As for McQueeen, there’s a very short video where he is posed the question here. Michael Fassbender makes some of sort of odd deflection joke and then McQueen tackles the question unenthusiastically, saying: “It’s not, you know, it’s how people perceive it. Nothing’s been said in the movie that they’ve had an incestuous relationship at all, but it’s one of things where if people think that there is, possibly, I don’t know. Obviously, possibly not as well. It’s not for us to judge. People have relationships with their brothers and sisters in another way. Just because Michael pops into the bathroom by accident and sees his sister naked. I mean, we don’t know how people behind closed doors have relationships with their sisters or brothers. You know, it’s not necessarily incestuous at all.”
So he denies it as well, but more diplomatically. He begrudgingly allows the viewer the freedom of their interpretation but his foremost point is that any viewer taking away that interpretation has made the mistake of generalizing about brother/sister behaviors. That indicates to me rather clearly that incest subtext was not intentional. And if he was merely trying deny that they had committed incest in the past, I think he would have spoken differently. On the good news side of things, I feel it’s pretty clear that he’s a little fed up with being asked the question, which means he’s been asked about it a lot. I read a comment that said he had grown rather annoyed about it at a screening. I wonder if someone got into a debate with him about it. He cites a specific scene – Sissy in the shower – which tells me that someone at some point specifically identified to him which scenes were considered suggestive.
His denial is actually hysterical to me: “We don’t know how people behind closed doors have relationships with their brothers or sisters.” Well, no, not technically, Steve. But we’ve got a pretty good sense of it.
Anyway, it’s a good thing we don’t really care about authorial intent, isn’t it?
The beginning of the film establishes that Brandon is man of routine. Waking up, raising the blinds, taking the subway, showering, having a prostitute over, etc., and, most relevantly for us: ignoring Sissy’s messages. She speaks the first dialogue in the movie: “Hey, it’s me. Pick up. Pick up.” It’s basically a summary of their relationship for most of the movie – she’s constantly metaphorically calling and he’s constantly metaphorically not answering. The “it’s me” is extremely familiar, and the “pick up, pick up” is also representative of the presumption with which she typically treats him. It also shows that she knows he won’t necessarily answer, indicating a history of on his part of ignoring her.
He plays his message machine as part of his routine, and it’s extremely cold the way he shows no reaction whatsoever to the message. He just goes about getting ready as it weren’t playing at all. And as we can tell from the next message, he never returns her calls: “Hey, it’s me. Pick up. Pick up. Brandon? Brandon? (Sing song) Brandon where are you? (Whispering) Brandon? Brandon? Brandon? (Sighing) Ugh! This is me calling you. Fuck!”
Sissy’s personality comes out right away. She’s in your face. She says his name SIX times in that message.
After the message ends we cut to him masturbating in the shower. I’d love to argue some kind of causality, but this is also part of his routine. (McQueen, speaking generally about sex addicts, says that this is something they might do 20 times a day on average.)
That evening (?) he’s on his laptop watching porn. His laptop should have gotten billing for this movie, it was almost a main character, with a dramatic death scene. Sissy calls again: “Okay, me again. I’m dying. I have cancer. I have one week to live. The very worst kind of cancer. Of the vulva-“ He turns off the machine before we hear the rest of the message that she is leaving. This is the first time we see him react to one of her messages, and he’s visibly frustrated by the interruption to his porn time. He’s finding it impossible to immerse himself in the porn while Sissy is speaking.
Her choice of vulvar cancer is interesting as it involves her genitalia. “Vulva” is also the last word she says before he shuts off the recording (although he was already reaching out to do so before she said it), which sort of left an impression on me like he just really needed Sissy and her vulva to stay the hell out of his way.
However, he is amused by her cancer ruse.
He goes right back to the porn, of course.
It’s hard to judge exactly how good-looking a character is supposed to be, usually, but we know that Brandon must be pretty easy on the eyes because he’s able to seduce women without even speaking to them. He and his boss, David, go out to pick up chicks at a bar, and while the oafish David embarrasses himself by trying too hard, Brandon scores a dirty alleyway (? bridge?) hookup through nothing more than intense smoldering.
It’s returning home from this that he is alarmed to find that someone has broken into his apartment. He immediately assumes that it’s a home invasion, even though most home invaders don’t put on a record and then hop in the shower. (I’m assuming. I guess I don’t really know how a home invader home invades behind closed doors.) He grabs a bat and pounces on the shower, only to recognize that it’s Sissy in there.
(The song she’s playing, a steady soundtrack to the entire scene, repeats the line “I want your love” over and over and over again. Sissy in a nutshell.)
She screams. There’s an exchange of confused cussing, and then Sissy asks him, “Brandon, don’t you fucking knock?”, which is going to be pretty ironic later on. It’s hilarious now, since it’ should be pretty obvious to her that he thought he had an intruder and you’re not going to knock for them, are you?
He apparently had given her keys, which doesn’t seem like something he would do, and it actually pretty sweet. They’ve both said several sentences before Brandon decides to hand her a towel, and then, hilariously, she doesn’t use it cover herself but instead wipes her face off, leaving her private parts as exposed as before.
Neither one seems uncomfortable about the fact that she’s naked, and she makes no effort to cover herself. Even after she has finished drying her face she holds the towel, still folded
(The script says that Brandon is “embarrassed” when he hands her the towel, but this could possibly refer to the fact that he hit her with a baseball bat and had forgotten she had a key. It’s possible he’s embarrassed, but he does not look away, at all, which tells me that he’s not. I may be generalizing about brother/sister behavior, but I’m pretty sure 99% of sisters would cover themselves immediately and brothers would look away or even straight up leave the room.)
“Don’t I always say call me first if you’re coming into town?” Brandon asks. Sissy and I have the same reaction to that. She points out that she has called him many times. Despite their difficult relationship, his line here indicates to me that they’ve been in semi-regular communication and this probably isn’t the first time she’s come by. I think, despite the fact that her presence during the events of the film is a catalyst in his life for realization and change, that they’re hardly estranged. I mean she wouldn’t have a key unless she had been to his apartment more than once.
He softens a little at this expression of sisterly love and then tells her to lock the door next time.
These people need to take their own advice.
As much as I’d like to say that this long naked exchange is all about incest, there’s at least one more layer on that onion. This scene (which is the first time we see her) is also about Sissy’s vulnerability. Her nakedness is symbolic of her vulnerability, and it represents how open she is with Brandon, how exposed she allows herself to be with him. And how she is as a person. Mulligan said, “I think that naked scene is about her trying to be seen.” And elsewhere she said:
I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of nudity. I’ve done only seminude, very innocent things in the past, and I’ve always been of the quite British mind-set that I won’t do gratuitous nudity. When it came to this, it just seemed so obvious that she is the sort of person who would have no trouble being naked in front of any family member, especially not her brother. She’s an extrovert and wants to be seen. More than anything, she wants someone to acknowledge and help her.
It’s also about Brandon, and how he sees Sissy. Which is to say, he sees her completely. He sees all of her scars and all of her flaws. There’s nothing hidden from his view.
Brandon hesitates for a minute once he is outside the bathroom, having closed the door behind him. He just stands there, taking deep breaths. He might be able to ignore her messages but it shakes him up something crazy when he has to see her. Brandon rejects emotion all day every day, so when he is confronted by it in the form of his sister, of course he has a reaction. All the same, the interpretation that this little pause is a reaction to seeing her naked and not just to seeing her in general is perfectly possible and there’s certainly nothing specific to indicate otherwise. If we do want to see it that way, it’s quite significant. He literally has to just stop for a few seconds to deal with it and get over it.
Of course Brandon’s relationship with women, women’s bodies, and sex is extremely complicated. This isn’t just a character who avoids intimacy, he’s a sex addict. I haven’t had much exposure to addiction. I’ve always thought of it simply as being unable to stop. But reading about this movie helped me to see it as much more than that. As this reviewer put it: “Addiction is about taking a thing that you once enjoyed and abusing and misusing it until there’s no longer any pleasure to it at all. Just, briefly, the cessation of pain.” The most important idea here is that sex isn’t about pleasure for Brandon. It’s about suffering and insatiable need. (The expression on his face during orgasm is usually one more of pain than anything.)
Another interpretation of Brandon and Sissy’s relationship that is available to us is that Sissy is actually the only female he is able to see in a way completely separated from sex. He sees her naked here, and it doesn’t matter. It’s not sexy, it’s not erotic. It’s not like he runs right off to his bedroom to jerk off (which would probably be his response to even just hearing high heels out in his hallway). And since Brandon has all of these ugly sex issues, that means Sissy may actually be the only woman he is capable of forming a real relationship and intimacy with. She may, literally, be the only woman for him.
He turns off the music.
Then he glances over and sees her scarf. He picks it up with the bat, frowns at it, then lets it slide down the bat into his hand. He runs his fingers along it, then lifts it up to his nose and smells it, closing his eyes.
The first time I saw this movie, that was the one part that really stood out to me. Because maybe a brother and sister can be totally indifferent about seeing each other naked, and maybe every other suggestive thing about their relationship could be explained away in other ways, but sniffing someone’s scarf is pretty serious business. And he doesn’t just sniff it, he closes his eyes (presumably in pleasure), which means this is a whole experience for him. Enjoying the smell of someone isn’t always attached to sex, but it often is, and it’s always attached to love. The way he smells her scarf you can tell that he loves her deeply, and has missed her, and needs her. It’s beautiful. (I’ve got a bit of a kink for that, I think.)
Brandon is in bed watching porn on his laptop when he begins to hear his sister’s cell phone conversation in the next room: “I want you. I don’t want anyone else. There is no one else. I love you. I’ll do anything. I’ll do anything. Please don’ say that. Please don’t say that. I don’t have to go out. I don’t have to go out. I don’t even fucking want to go out. I can stay with you. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t need anybody else. I love you. I love you. I love you so much. I love you, please. I love you. Please, I feel sick. I feel really sick.”
As a shipper it’s hard to hear her saying all of that stuff to someone else, but whoever this guy is I don’t think he really matters. It’s in Sissy’s nature to love with everything she has. And she’s incredibly needy. She needs everything from this guy, which is reflected in her intense language. But what’s most important is that she needs this from someone. It doesn’t have to be this guy. She wants it to be Brandon.
He sets down as his laptop and walks over to his door, putting his head against the door and listening sadly. He sighs (“resignedly”, the script says). It’s difficult for him to understand how someone can be needy like that and love like that, and he also knows Sissy and how much she’s hurting. Whether this guy really matters or not he knows how deeply Sissy feels everything.
He grows more and more annoyed with the her the longer her stay lasts, but I think this moment showing his sympathy and the scarf-sniffing are much more representative of how he feels about her.
We cut to breakfast the next morning. Brandon is making eggs for her. She walks into the kitchen in a loose-fitting white shirt and leaves very little to the imagination. She has found an earring (perhaps in the couch cushions) and teases him about his “hot date”.
She tells him that he’s going grey, and then asks him if she looks fat. He tells her to sit down, and she hits him and says, “Fuck you,”, as if that was a yes. I wonder if this is sort of a veiled reference to him seeing her naked the night before. She might have a particular interest in bringing that up to see his reaction. Or maybe she cares what he thinks about how she looks. Either is interesting for our purposes.
She wants to know if she can stay, and Brandon does not like the question. She says she would stay with Mark, but he’s being an asshole. “Mark?” Brandon asks. Presumably the guy from the phone last night. She seems to healing. Brandon’s inquiry about Mark could make us wonder if he’s jealous.
But Brandon still resists:Finally he caves. She jumps on his back and kisses his head. This touch again makes him very uncomfortable and if anything is clear it’s that he wants to be out of the embrace as quickly as possible. Maybe he shies from any kind of physical affection that isn’t casual sex, or maybe he doesn’t like the way his body is reacting to her touch. (The script has her slapping his butt and a kiss more directly on his face – I wonder if that stuff was toned down on purpose?)
She shouts out that the eggs are “so good”, and then we hear his door slam. We linger on her face, where she’s dismayed. I think it shows that she has been putting on a bit of an act with him. She’s hurt that he was so reluctant to let her stay, that he’s so unwelcoming. Although look at the way he made her breakfast. I think it’s instinctual for him to take of her. Carey Mulligan said:
She wants to hold onto some sort of dynamic they had, as children, and forge a new relationship and try to get him back. Her humor is in his discomfort. When she makes him uncomfortable, and she does in that scene when he throws a towel at her and she throws it back, it’s funny to her. That’s how they always have been. She winds him up, and he is mean to her. That’s their normal relationship. So, she’s trying to get that back. The discomfort is intentional. She keeps on misfiring, all the time. She tries to make a joke or engage him conversation, and he just shuts her down. It’s supposed to feel kind of painful.
I feel like we see that a lot in this breakfast scene. She keeps making these jokes – teasing him about the earring, telling him he’s going grey – trying to re-establish their dynamic and trying to engage him, and he’s resisting at every turn. In that last shot of her, we see how disappointed she is that her efforts are failing, that he’s not warming up.
We can see how much Brandon’s routine is altered by his sister’s presence. His morning was different, now he’s not alone while he’s waiting for the train.
(The script makes a lot out of this moment: “SISSY stares at BRANDON. Instinctively, BRANDON feels her gaze. He turns and looks. They hold each other’s eyes for more than a beat. BRANDON turns away.”)
This is one the lighter scenes between them. She begins picking fluff off of his jacket after he turns away, and he tells her to stop and says that he likes it there. Her reaching out to do that isn’t extremely intimate, but it’s far more than Brandon is used to. He picks the fluff off and then puts in on her shoulder, and she laughs. I mean I don’t know what else to say about this scene except that it’s really nice, and it shows how well it is possible for them to get along. Everything that wasn’t working about their relationship in the breakfast scene is going really well here.
Brandon asks how she’s doing for money, and offers generously to give her what she needs. She says that she’s fine: “I even make money and now everything.” We can infer she’s been pretty hard up in the past. She wants him to come and hear her sing – she referred to “gigs” earlier – and he says he will, but she’s skeptical about his sincerity. Apparently he’s promised to come see her before and hasn’t made it. “Please come,” she says.
“Please come,” she repeats, knocking shoulders.
“Okay, I will,” he says after staring at her for a minute, sounding much more sincere this time. From his face we know that he can tell this is important to her and intends to follow through.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if the whole movie had been like that?
Brandon is highly susceptible to doing whatever Sissy wants under the right circumstances. Even though the scenes the night before showed us that she is a person that matters to him, this scene demonstrates that she can get through to someone that’s buried inside of him.
At work, his boss David wants to go out again like they did the night before. Brandon suggests they go and hear Sissy sing. “My sister’s playing downtown somewhere.” –“She’s playing?” –“She’s a musician. Well, she’s a singer.”
This is the first time that we hear that Sissy is his sister. Anyone who knows the plot of movie probably already knew that she was his sister, like I did, but canonically speaking, this is the first time we find out who Sissy is. Their behavior in the kitchen and on the subway platform certainly gave off a brother/sister vibe (and the debatable relative non-sexuality to those scenes given how sexualized they might have been), but anything that happened the night before could have just as easily been an ex or a friend, or a friend with benefits, and it isn’t until Brandon is at work that we know for sure.
Withholding the information that two characters are brother and sister can sometimes have a particular effect. (Especially when there’s a scene with so much nudity.) Certainly when it comes to incestuous relationships it’s an effective tool to create sympathy with your audience. If they start rooting for the couple and then find out that they’re brother and sister it’s much more confusing for them than if they know they’re brother and sister right off the bat. McQueen could have easily revealed the information right away – either through the messages (sometimes I leave messages for my brother starting with “It’s your sister”), or something like, “I’m your sister, you gave me a key.” But perhaps McQueen is so against explaining anything that he just had to wait until a situation where Brandon was talking about her. But he could have created one. Sissy could have left a message while the prostitute was over – Brandon could have explained to the prostitute that it was his sister calling. Point is: I think it was intentional to withhold that information.
David and Brandon head to the club downtown that evening. The view is incredible – I would love to go to that place.
Sissy starts singing. It’s an extremely interesting scene from a filmmaking perspective. Sissy sings “New York New York”, typically a very upbeat (hopeful and optimistic) song about a person headed to New York to make it big. But the way it’s done here is bluesy, about a girl who’s on the outside of everything good and has only got one chance left. It’s really fascinating how the tone and voice can change the meaning of the words. It’s also an excruciating slow version of the song, and it’s almost entirely done as uncut close up of Sissy’s face. Many of the reviews and interviews touched on how it was a sort of fearless way to do the scene.
Sissy has barely sung a few bars before Brandon has to look away. He can stare at her naked with no problem but he can’t watch her sing. David notices Brandon look away, which forces Brandon to turn his eyes back to the stage. McQueen pointed out that if David had not been there, Brandon might have ducked out. It was David’s presence which really forced Brandon to sit there and watch the whole thing.
Sissy’s eyes has been unfocused, but then they settle in on Brandon (while she’s saying “to you”), and then we cut to him and see how emotional and intense his experience of watching her sing is. A few tears run down his cheek. He has to look away again. Stare down at the table. Take a drink. Then he looks back up at her, more tears, looks away again, another big drink. It’s rough on him. Poor Brandon. His applause as lackluster, when she finally finished the song. I think he should have given her a standing ovation.
It’s an extremely moving scene. Carey Mulligan might not be an extraordinary singer but her performance is amazing. One review said, “[She sings] as if it’s a cry for help. Mulligan, filling every pause between the words, shows us that Sissy needs to sing because otherwise she might cry; she’s an open wound seeking a bandage — and not finding it with her brother.” Describing the song as a cry for help is perfect. It’s like you can see her dying while she sings it, even though there’s also something very polished about it. Another view described this scene as giving the movie a soul, which I like a lot.
And of course Brandon’s tears are so important. This is a guy who basically has everything turned off and it’s like Sissy is this whirlwind chaotically flipping all of these switches inside of him.
McQueen said this:
Sissy is communicating with him in verse, she’s singing the truth — it’s all there in the lyrics — and it evaporates his defenses. It opens doors which are locked inside him, and for that moment he’s opened up, he acknowledges the past. As soon as she stops singing, the doors are locked and the drawbridge goes back up again.
Why is he crying? Is he crying because of how beautiful her singing is? That was my original interpretation and is my preferred one. Or is he crying because of how sad her singing is? Crying out of sympathy, or out of shared sadness? Or is he just so full of different emotions?
The version of this scene from the script is actually quite different. I think the spirit is the same, but some of these bits from the script sound amazing. You don’t really see them lock eyes too much in the movie, but it sounds like it was the original intention.
Sissy joins Brandon and David at their table. Brandon is extremely uncomfortable. I don’t know if it’s because he’s still got tears in his eyes or because David is flirting with her already but it’s palpable.
Sissy asks how she was, and Brandon stutters out some nonsense about it being “interesting” and “good” while he fidgets with his ear. Sissy is underwhelmed by the reaction, but for once we’re glad that David is there because he tells Sissy, “He was crying. He was crying. There were tears coming down his face.”
“Really?” Sissy asks in disbelief.
Of course this makes Brandon even more uncomfortable. He flees to get another round of drinks.
David moves closer to Sissy and begins asking her questions. We find out that she and Brandon grew up in New Jersey (and Brandon later says they moved from Ireland, so it’s an interesting background.) As Brandon sits back down at the table, David is taking Sissy’s hand. Brandon notices with acute displeasure. Jealous? There’s a long list of reasons why Brandon wouldn’t want his troubled sister sleeping with his married boss, but there’s no reason why jealousy can’t be a factor as well. I think that’s easily read on his face. I go to jealousy as an interpretation several times in this scene because I feel like a wariness would have more of an irritation to it.
David makes fine conversation after that for a while, but asks if he can see Sissy again not three minutes later. It’s an automatic cringe for me, and Brandon is NOT happy. Even though we’ve seen other ladies scoff at David, Sissy is an easy target for him and she succumbs to his efforts.
We cut to the backseat of a cab. Brandon is staring miserably out the window while David and Sissy make out next to him (in an “almost animal” fashion, according to the script. The script also says that Brandon frequently looks in the rear view mirror, which means he is meant to be watching them.)
The cab pulls up to the curb. David hops out, throws Sissy over his shoulder, and they make a dash for the apartment. Brandon follows slowly after, seething.
We cut to him waiting for the elevator. The doors open, but instead he sits down and hangs his head. We don’t know how long he sits there for, but it’s probably not too long, since David and Sissy haven’t gotten to it yet. We hear them talking and laughing in Brandon’s bedroom, as he enters the apartment, troubled and angry. He paces, runs his hands through his hair, punches the wall, rinse and repeat. I’m not even sure how to properly describe this sequence, he just sort of wanders around putting his head into his hands and then sits down in the corner, like he’s hiding. At this point his hair is all messed up which makes him look crazy. He’s losing it, basically. We hear Sissy start moaning.
Obviously, watching this scene through shipper goggles, all we’re going to see is Brandon in a pitiful(/wonderful) state of jealousy. Without any context, that’s really all that plays. And even with context, it’s a valid interpretation.
But that darn script throws a wrench in our works:
BRANDON doesn’t want to hear. BRANDON stands back against a wall, as if transfixed, as if he cannot take any more. His breathing is irregular. Something of the past has come to the present. All of his distractions have now stopped, and he is at once confronted with himself. His face bears the pain of something long passed, but visually present. This wound has not healed.
The script makes it clear that what Brandon is feeling right now is a result of some past trauma being brought up.
So I guess we just ignore the script? I’m OK with that.
Remember – authorial intent doesn’t matter. Or at least it doesn’t have to matter.
Brandon starts taking his clothes off, which certainly makes a first-time viewer wonder what a man like him is up to, but he’s merely changing into his jogging clothes. (Although it’s not a continuous shot – we cut to him dressed in his sweats – so maybe he took some time to do something else if you know what I mean.)
I’m not really sure why, but we spend several minutes watching him jog. (It’s apparently a very impressive uninterrupted tracking shot. I didn’t really appreciate it until I knew that. Now I see how cool it is. Although I don’t really see the point of watching him jog for so long. He listens to a classical piece called The Goldberg Variations while he’s jogging, which is very mathematical as far as music goes. It’s part of Brandon grasping at control the way he does.)
I sort of have a special attachment to this scene because I had written something very similar for my one of my (currently far-from-complete) original works of fiction. Do you all roll your eyes when I bring up my novel(s)? I don’t blame you.
She comes over and climbs into bed with him, snuggling against his back. (He’s shirtless, possibly naked entirely, which is how he prefers to sleep as we saw at the beginning.) He’s awake, and “inwardly flinches” (script!) as he hears her enter. He tells her he has to be up early the next morning but she protests that it’s cold.
She’s the only person he yells at. He’s so controlled with everyone else.
There’s a lot at work here. He’s angry at her for inconveniencing him, for forcing him to remember their past, for being so inconsiderate, for sleeping with boss (/being her typical self, presumably). Perhaps the jealousy is still there, causing him to be agitated, and perhaps he’s angry at her for being a temptation to him. But I also think he’s reacting more to the intrusion into his private, repressive, ordered life than he is to anything in particular that she did. He’s got his life set up in such a way that it keeps the bad memories at bay and he can’t keep them at bay when she’s there, singing, and having sex in the next room. And the intimacy of sharing a bed with someone is not something he is ready for. He couldn’t handle ever her hugs earlier that morning. He’s also just suffering from this confused resentment that she forces on him.
And the shippiest interpretation, without a doubt, is that he really just couldn’t handle her being in bed with him like that.
On the one hand, there’s something very childlike about Sissy and about the way she is with Brandon – jumping on his back, putting her hat on his head, etc. Her climbing into bed with him could be seen like that – like just another iteration of something they used to do as kids. All very innocent. I mean, particularly since she cuddles up him. But we’re coming off of a scene of her having loud sex. That’s what we’re still associating her with. And he’s probably naked down there. At the very least they’re both scantily clad. Basically she had sex with David, and now she wants to do all of the post-coital snuggling with Brandon. And to say it’s entirely devoid of incestuous implications when there’s all of this sexual stuff lingering about is a little silly.
I do think they definitely have a tradition of sharing a bed from when they were younger. Sissy seems to think nothing of hopping into bed with him, so it might even be argued that it hasn’t been all that long since the last time they did it, but that sort of ingenuousness is also just part of her personality, I think. Perhaps they did it for the comfort of each other’s company during this question mark of a tragedy in their past, or perhaps they just liked sharing a bed.
One of Brandon’s coworkers, a woman named Marianne, makes the first move and she and Brandon plan a date. We’ve seen him staring at her lustfully before. He’s nervous, and arrives late. (I think there’s a chance he might have stood her up, but he doesn’t. So what’s different about his life now that he’s willing to try this? Sissy, right?) Not nervous about her as much as nervous about being on a date. It’s probably been a long time. The date is awkward. (My favorite part is the over-attentive waiter. I think something about him made it all feel very real.) The date shows that Brandon is “as relationally incompetent as he is craftily seductive” – I loved that quote from a review.
Of course on a date family is one of the first questions that come up. Brandon tells her that he moved from Ireland when he was a teen. So she asks about his family, and he says only that he has a sister. (So Sissy was basically one of the first topics of conversation on this date.) Brandon is not forthcoming with the details, and the conversation doesn’t flow very smoothly – it’s more like back and forth Q&A. Michael Fassbender pointed out in an interview that it’s very telling that Brandon and Sissy never talk about their parents.
It only gets worse when they move on from the small talk. Marianne is separated, and she picks up quickly on the fact that Brandon isn’t big on the idea of long-term committed relationships. He says:
Well, yeah. I mean, I just don’t understand why people would want to get married. Especially nowadays, I mean, it’s… You know… I don’t see the point. It doesn’t seem realistic. […]I mean, I just mean, you know… One person for the rest of your life? I mean, you know, you come to restaurants, you see couples sitting together and they don’t even speak to one another. They don’t have anything to say.
“Or they’re just bored with one another,” Brandon says.
So we can see that Brandon is obviously very cynical about the idea of love and marriage. More than anything he just finds the idea impossible. Of course the great thing about this movie is that no matter how bleak it is, it isn’t cynical like Brandon. Brandon is wrong. The show depicts a sort of “toxic loneliness of sex without human connection”. But at this point in his life (in his struggle with his addiction), it’s impossible for him. He’s right about that.
This isn’t necessarily true, but such an outlook probably has something to do with his parents and their relationship with each other.
And of course there’s something to be said, in terms of Brandon/Sissy, about him not wanting to be permanently attached to another woman. He basically sees Sissy as being the only permanent fixture in his life. And I don’t think he has to worry about growing bored with her. Their personalities are so completely opposite I don’t think that would ever happen.
Curious, Marianne asks him what his longest relationship was, and he answers four months, which doesn’t impress her. Although given his lifestyle right now, I’m a little impressed. I wonder when his addiction started. I’ve no doubt he was always a little screwed up in terms of sex but I feel like the ways in which it’s ruining his life right now probably built up slowly.
The second part of the date goes better – they take a walk. Brandon opens up a little and tells an anecdote from his childhood about his cousin tossing him up in the air and him hitting his head on the ceiling. Then he asks Marianne if she could live in any time period and be anyone, what would she choose. She turns the question on him and he says that he always wanted to be a musician in the 60s.
There’s a lot of meaning in his answer. First of all, he chose the past. I think that has to do with how alienated he feels in the present because of how our society is and the technology we have. All of the time he spends on his computer, especially all of the porn he watches. It puts him at even more of a distance than he already would be because of his addiction/trauma issues. Plus he’s stuck in this soul-sucking corporate job. We don’t even know what he does because it doesn’t matter, least of all to him.
And then the musician part is interesting because of Sissy. Remember when he told David that Sissy was a musician, and then corrected himself and said singer? Sissy is living his dream, in a way. She’s all of these things that he feels like he can’t be, whether it’s being a musician when he’s a businessman, or being open when he’s closed off, or loving freely when he can barely love at all. McQueen said about Sissy’s singing:
Brandon is an introvert, who is imploding. Sissy is an extrovert, who is exploding. These two people come from the same background, but obviously, what’s happened in their background has effected them differently. I imagined that Sissy was a performer. She’s very expressive. She wants to give. She’s an artist. She wants to get whatever is inside of her, out of her, as an artist.
We can see after Marianne goes down to her subway stop that he enjoyed he date, and he expresses a desire to see her again. It’s probably been a long time since he was out with a woman and it didn’t end in sex.
Brandon goes home and Sissy isn’t there. Her living space around the couch is starting to look a little trashed, a contrast with the neat way he maintains his colorless apartment and it’s easy to see he’s a little irritated. He flips on his laptop. We cut to Sissy coming in the front door in a hurry. She bursts into the bathroom, and lo and behold, to no one’s surprise but Sissy’s, Brandon is masturbating in there. I have GIFS!
This is where all of that irony comes in. Brandon telling Sissy to lock the bathroom door, her demanding if he ever knocks.
(The script is a little different: “SISSY, shocked, stands with her hand still on the door handle, transfixed by a naked BRANDON.” Come on, McQueen! Your script is more suggestive than the actual movie!)
Sissy is just amused, but Brandon’s shame is manifesting itself in anger. He’s wrapped a towel around himself and comes out to confront her. “What, are you fucking spying on me?” he demands.
“Lock the fucking door, Brandon,” she replies, half laughing.
She mimics him.
He pushes her down onto the couch.
DO YOU SEE THIS?
“Fuck, Brandon!” she says, laughing in surprise.
“What do you want?” he snarls.
He straddles her, and the towel falls. “You want some of this?” he asks.
She doesn’t understand that he’s actually in a rage, she’s punching him lightly and ten putting her hands on his shoulders.
“What do you want from me?” he demands several times. Then he asks, “Why are you here?!” He grabs her shoulders and shakes her. “Why? Why?”
“Talk to me! Fucking bitch!”
He starts climbing off, and she says, “Get the fuck off me!” and then yells after him, “You fucking weirdo.”
“Fucking slut,” he says
He retreats back into the bathroom and puts his forehead against the door troubledly, slamming his palm against it once in anger. Then he sits down on the floor, breathing heavily and looking generally unhappy.
Sissy looks back at the bathroom, upset.
“Brandon!” she calls out, looking conciliatory.
“Brandon I’m sorry!”
Well that was big of her.
But he doesn’t respond.
Obviously a very uncomfortable scene.
It’s about his shame more than anything else. And it’s not just that she saw him masturbating, it’s that he knows he wasn’t just masturbating, that he’s got a very serios problem.
But, like, HIS TOWEL FALLS OFF! Is that just to show how much he’s lost it? How out of control he is? How maybe she’s starting to see all of him in his nakedness (all of his scars and his flaws) the way he saw her in their first scene together?
Well, he’s straddling her and he’s naked, so as far as I’m concerned that’s incestuously suggestive and that’s all she wrote.
It’s so sad how she thinks they’re play fighting like two kids would do, and he’s just cracking because of how ashamed he is, and then she reaches out and apologizes (right away!) even though he should be the one apologizing, but he doesn’t even want to hear it because it hurts him too much and his shame has just been compounded because now he also has be ashamed about yelling at her and hurting her and insulting her.
I think there’s this tension between Sissy wanting to have the exact same relationship they had when they were children, or perhaps not even the relationship they had as children but the relationship that she thinks they should have had, and Brandon being completely unable to reciprocate because he just feels so dirty, like he’s incapable of that kind of innocence. I think that might be part of the reason why he can barely stand to be touched by her most of the time.
As for the “weirdo”/”slut” exchange, it might have just been name-calling like one does in a fight (Marianne called Brandon a weirdo earlier, in a good-humored way), or not. “Weirdo” is fairly generic, and I doubt it was referring to him masturbating, but it might have been a reference to him straddling her while he was naked. From what we know of Sissy this probably isn’t a huge deal to her, but if that is what she was referring to then we’re getting a hint that she realizes all of this seeing each other naked isn’t normal. Brandon’s response could be him calling her a slut for thinking that he’s being “weird” instead of just angry, which is to say, imposing the guilt of the incest subtext of the moment on to her. Or it could be anger leftover from when she slept with David. Or, of course, a general indictment of her life style.
Of course it’s the most ironic insult he could have used because I’m pretty sure if there’s a slut in the Sullivan family it’s him and not her. So there’s definitely an aspect here of projection. He took his shame and turned it into fury, and now he’s taking his own guilt and putting it on her.
The most uncomfortable evening ever is not over yet. Sissy sits down at Brandon’s laptop. The screen had gone dark, but ones she goes to use it we see that Brandon had been video chatting with some sort of online sex service.
The expression on Sissy’s face cracks me up. It’s just kind of a “seriously?” and “I gotta deal with this now?” (According to the script she’s also supposed to be slightly intrigued.)
The woman on the screen starts turning it into a threesome situation, asking Sissy if she is Brandon’s girlfriend, telling her that Brandon would like it if she played with her tits, and then telling Sissy that she (woman on screen) knows what Brandon likes.
This is another situation where we have something a little suggestive that doesn’t necessarily mean anything but could have easily been written differently, and when taken with the rest of the movie seems more significant.
Brandon sits on a chair in his bedroom, staring at his laptop which he has set down on his bed. Then he gets stirred up into a frenzy. He grabs a black trash bag and starts throwing all of his porn into it – all of his magazines and whatnot. Then he dumps some old food on top of it (presumably so he won’t go digging through the trash to get them back, and also because he’s trying to get rid of everything old and useless), puts his laptop in last (the waste!) and takes the bag down to the curb on the street. It’s like the alcoholic dumping all of his booze down the drain.
The next day at work he pursues Marianne rather aggressively and they go and get a hotel room. When he’s taking off her clothes he comments on her stockings (?): “Are they vintage?”
So we come back to the vintage thing again, which right now is something we associate with Sissy’s wardrobe and also something that calls back to Brandon’s glamorization of the past.
Brandon is enjoying making out with Marianne but he suffers some erectile dysfunction and can’t get it up for her when it comes to the actual intercourse. We already know he’s attracted to her, so that’s not the problem. And he’s certainly “in the mood” because he’s always in the mood. He just can’t have non-anonymous sex. Once there’s any intimacy involved it’s a non-starter for him. That’s how screwed up he is.
He has a prostitute over or picks up another chick after Marianne leaves, without a glitch.
He tried to be better, but it’s not going to be that easy.
Brandon is back at his apartment (later that night?), sitting on the couch and watching a cartoon. Sissy walks in, leaving a message for David in exactly the same tone she used to leave her messages for Brandon at the beginning.
She asks Brandon if he has eaten – he hasn’t, but he’s not hungry. Then she shits down right beside him. He shifts uncomfortably. There are several different interpretations for why he responds in such a way to her touch but there’s no denying that his responses aren’t normal.
“Can you just give me a hug?” she asks quietly.
It’s interesting that he’s watching a cartoon, a children’s thing.
They sit there for a while, and he even rubs her a little bit with his hand.
“He’s not gonna screw you again,” Brandon says, referring to David. He knows David’s M.O. “You left him a message, didn’t you? You can’t help yourself.”
The “you can’t help yourself” comes off like an accusation, but I can’t help but think that it’s also very sad and he must realize that. She really can’t help herself, that’s how she is.
“It’s disgusting,” he says.
Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this afternoon.
I’m not sure why he’s trying to pick a fight, unless her leaving that message for David was just so pathetic to him that he couldn’t help but say something. There are parts of Sissy that Brandon admires, but he’s also repulsed by many of the ways in which she is different from him. He sees it as a weakness. But he also hates the parts of himself that he sees in Sissy. As Michael Fassbender said, “Brandon doesn’t really want her around. She is the closest thing to him. And is therefore something makes him feel very uncomfortable.” I see him repulsed by the similarities in her because they remind him of what he hates about himself and what he has in their shared past that he hates.
But he also hates the parts of himself that he doesn’t see in Sissy. Which is to say, he feels something lacking in himself, which makes him angry, and he turns that anger on her.
And he’s also still very bitter about her having sex with David, clearly. And, as always, this could be jealousy rearing its ugly head as well. Not only did Sissy sleep with David but here she is trying to get with him again, which Brandon obviously does not like.
“Why are you so fucking angry?” she asks.
“Why am I so fucking angry? That’s my boss! You sleep with him after twenty minutes and now you’re calling him up? What’s the matter with you? You know he’s got a family, right? You know he’s got a family? You didn’t see his wedding ring?”
“No,” she says.
“You’re a liar.”
She blinks and doesn’t answer.
He removes his arm from around her.
“Look, just forget it,” he said. “This isn’t working out, obviously.”
They stare at each other for a few seconds.
“This isn’t about him,” she surmises. “I make you angry all the time and I don’t know why.”
“You’re my brother.”
“So what? I’m responsible for you?” he asks.
“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. I’m trying to help you.”
“You come in here and you’re a weight on me,” he says. “Do you understand me? You’re a burden. You’re just fucking dragging me down. How are you helping me? You can’t even clean up after yourself. Stop playing the victim.”
An interesting choice of words given that we’re supposed to assume they’re both the victim of something.
Michael Fassbender said in one of the extras that Brandon “does feel responsible for her which is why he doesn’t like her coming into his life and forcing him to be”. Essentially, it’s only because he does feel responsible for her that having her around is so taxing on him. That’s why he feels trapped. Whenever he has to remember that she exists he feels all of that responsibility and guilt about not taking better care of her surface, and that creates resentment, and anger.
And Brandon is, of course, the opposite. He has trained himself not to want anyone or anything, or need anyone or anything. And McQueen says that that goes against our bodies, ourselves. Against what’s good for us. Which is a lot of the reason why he’s suffering. He’s bragging about his self-reliance here, but Sissy sees that it’s actually his weakness. As McQueen also said, they’re the same blood, but it’s like oil and water with them, and they know each other better than they know themselves, which makes a conversation like this particularly explosive.
“I’m not playing the fucking victim,” she responds. There are tears in her voice. She pulls his hand off of her face and takes it. “If I left I would never hear from you again. Don’t you think that’s sad? Don’t you think that’s sad?” (I say that line all the time. Carey Mulligan says it in a particular way and I sort of exaggerate it. Mostly just to myself though, LOL.) “You’re my brother,” she continues.
Well I’m with Sissy. I think it’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.
Her words get to him but he doesn’t know how to respond. He pulls his hand out of hers frustratedly. “Why is it always so dramatic with you? Everything is always the end of the world.”
“It’s not fucking dramatic,” she replies. “I’m trying to talk to you.”
“I don’t wanna talk,” he says.
“Try not talking. Try just listening or thinking for a change,” he continues.
“Yeah, ‘cause that’s working great for you. You’re completely fine,” she slings back.
“I’ve got my own fucking apartment.”
“Oh whoopee-fucking shit. You have your own apartment that’s amazing. You have a job and an apartment. I should be in awe of you.”
“Well at least I’m responsible for it,” he says. “At least I don’t depend on people all the time. You’re a dependency. You’re a parasite.”
“You don’t have anybody,” she points out. “You don’t have anybody. You have me and your fucking pervert boss.”
“You slept with that fucking pervert boss. What does that make you?”
“Don’t talk to me about sex life, Brandon. Not from you.”
Ooh, burn. I feel like it’s a safe assumption that she’s talking about his onscreen lady friend but some have pointed out that this could refer to Brandon and Sissy having had sex in the past. At the very least it could indicate that she knows, perhaps from past experience, that his sex life is a little odd, a little troubled.
Of course this is a nasty comment for Brandon to receive. He might be the aggressor in this conversation but we already know how sensitive he is about this (especially after his failed tryst with Marianne earlier that day). It’s amazing how willing he is to criticize Sissy when he’s got his own problems of such a magnitude.
“Whatever,” he says dismissively, rising immediately to his feet. “I’m going out.”
“Right, and then you’ll come back and we’ll just have the same fucking conversation again.”
“No, you’ll move out,” he says.
“And then I’ll never hear from you again?”
He doesn’t answer.
Brandon relapses, binging himself on anonymous sex all night long. Early on he hits on a girl in a bar and then antagonizes her boyfriend, which results in getting himself beat up. I think it’s sort of like Sissy’s self harm. He wanted that pain.
At one point during the night Brandon checks his voicemail. Sissy has left him a message, possibly the last of several. It begins with some heavy breathing, and the plays over a montage of Brandon in a threeway with some prostitutes: “Brandon, I really need to talk to you. Please will you pick up the fucking phone? Brandon, I need you. We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place. Thanks for letting me stay.”
The implication here is definitely that Brandon is neglecting her. His addiction is getting in the way of him being the brother to Sissy that he needs to be.
(I’m surprised he even listened to the message, but I’m not clear if he listened to the whole thing or not. We see him hanging up before the message could have possible finished. So it’s one case where I think the editing is ambiguous.)
The next morning Brandon is taking the subway back home. He’s forced off the train, presumably because there was a jumper, which reminds him of Sissy flirting with the edge towards the beginning of the movie, and he suddenly becomes terrified that she might have done something to herself. He must know her well enough to realize that she’s prone to hurting herself, so perhaps he should have realized what their conversation the night before might have done to her state of mind, and the voice message was certainly a clue, but it’s hitting him now.
(I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know how big her cuts were, but it’s really sort of a stretch that she was still alive when he found her, or a coincidence that she cut herself just in time for his return. But I don’t mind.)
He sits by her hospital bed, his head in his hands.
She’s got a hospital bracelet on her wrist, and if you noticed, she’s also wearing a bracelet like that in her first scene when she’s in the shower. So she was maybe in the hospital not long before she came to stay with him.
“Shithead,” she says.
He looks over, surprised. Then he runs his hand over her head, with a small chuckle. Then he lays his head on the pillow beside her, and she closes her eyes. He takes her hand and closes his eyes too.
This whole sequence obviously causes a lot of feels. Landslides of feels.
We see him out on the street in the rain after leaving the hospital. He’s almost in a daze. He stops by the water (we’ve seen him stand, pondering, in this spot several times before), and then sort of collapses, wracked by sobs. A purging cry.The final scene is parallel to the very first scene. Brandon is on the subway making eyes with a girl across the aisle. He pursues her actively in the first scene, but we see she has a ring on her finger and even though she’s clearly not immune to his silent wooing she rushes off the train and into the crowd. In this scene she is more than willing, but we see Brandon hesitate. The credits cut off the scene. We don’t know if he will follow her or not. It’s open-ended. There’s the glimmer of hope – this is not the same man as in the first scene. He’s changed. Changed by having Sissy in his life again, changed by almost losing her. But there’s the reality that most addicts do fall off the wagon, more than once. In the end it doesn’t matter if he follows her or not this time because what’s important is that he’ll always be tempted and he’ll always have to make that choice and there will always be the hope that he won’t follow her.
I want to return to the idea that Sissy is the catalyst for change in Brandon’s life. We see it in small ways, such as her colorful, vintage wardrobe and the way it contrasts with Brandon’s black and white modern apartment. And it functions in big ways, too, of course. Brandon doesn’t even exactly realize how serious his problem is until Sissy comes and he has to face how irrepressible his needs are. His shame, I think, already existed, but in his privacy it was only self-destructive; when Sissy forces it to light it begins to alter him for the better. To heal. But he struggles against that. We see that the closer she tries to get to him, the more dismissive he is. And that’s what she wants – to be closer to him: “She feels very deeply that she and her brother should be closer and that’s what she wants from him.” (Carey Mulligan). “She’s has her arms stretched out and she’s like, “Love me!” She falls in love, and she runs around and she’s a mess. She’s just trying to be saved, and she comes to New York for him to save her.”
She comes to New York for him to save her!
I want to also do a round-up of ways that critics hinted at the incest subtext between Brandon and Sissy: “a thoroughly messed-up sibling bond unlike any you’ve seen onscreen”; “their push-and-pull entanglement has a dark, near-incestuous tension”; “Sissy’s tendency to crawl into her brother’s bed at night more than hints at an incestuous relationship when these Irish-born siblings were growing up”; “there’s a low crackle of incestuous energy between the siblings that the movie never investigates” (my favorite phrasing); “intimations of incest go unexplored”; “they act more like on-again, off-again lovers than siblings”; “not (or not necessarily) a desperate ex-lover, it’s his crazy younger sister, Sissy”; “he finds her naked in the shower, thus grazing another taboo”; “Sissy is desperately looking for commitment, from a string of dubious boyfriends and particularly from her brother. Whereas he can’t connect sex to love, she can’t distinguish the two”. And those were just from the ones that I read. The last one is particularly insightful, I think. Because it describes their problems perfectly and almost proves the incest subtext through logic.
Of course, non-professional reviews brought up the subject frequently as well, which I won’t really go into. I’ve already incorporated the best insights I came across.
OK, let’s talk backstory. In the movie there is only one conclusive hint that Brandon and Sissy have some sort of event or situation in their past that has damaged them – Sissy’s line: “We aren’t bad people, we just come from a bad place.” I don’t think she’s referring to New Jersey. Other less tangible hints include the total lack of reference to their parents, Sissy’s self harm, and the fact that they’re both very broken individuals.
As McQueen, the actors, and many critics have said, it’s not important to know exactly what happened to them, only that something happened. It’s enough to know that they’re scarred. McQueen is only interested in “depicting the past in the present”, not the past itself. Michael Fassbender said:
Well, we talked about backstory. Carey, Steve and I got together and discussed it, many times. We all had an idea of something, but perhaps had our own versions of it. But, I’m not going to tell you what that is. It’s not really that important, to be honest. It’s not just to be tricky with it. They never mention their parents, so that already speaks volumes. There is a history between them.
Carey Mulligan also mentioned that they talked about the history in sort of broad strokes, but also declined to mention what it was, only that it wasn’t incest between Brandon and Sissy.
One of the producers for the film, Iain Canning, said “Through our research we found that there was no common denominator in their stories that led them down this path [to sex addiction]. We wanted to honor that diversity of experience in Brandon by not addressing individual histories but the collective psyche behind the addiction.” So that was another reason, aside from it being unnecessary and McQueen not liking exposition, that they left the past ambiguous.
It’s really McQueen’s commentary and the details in the script that elevate the importance of this “bad place”. I would argue that what we see onscreen does not force the interpretation that they’re screwed up by their past instead of garden-variety screwed up. As I’ve mentioned before I’m a huge believer in psychology, so I do believe they’re products of their experiences no matter what, which is to say, if they’re screwed up or not screwed up or hate mustard or like the color green or whatever it’s because of their past, but I mean that much more specifically.
But I cannot argue that that was McQueen’s intention. He even goes so far as to say that Brandon’s sex addiction is “about forgetting, no matter how much damage accumulates”. He mentions that Brandon is facing the past when he gets emotional during Sissy’s singing and when he has his freak out while Sissy and David are having sex. The latter seems particularly indicative of some sort of sexual trauma in their upbringing, which is probably the first thing all of us thought of anyway. It could be that one or both of them was sexually abused by their father. And here Brandon is once again forced to listen while someone has sex with his sister. It could be bringing up memories of it happening to him as well, or of his failure to protect her. But it’s not necessarily sexual abuse from their father. (And personally, I would prefer something else, not only for shipping reasons.) A commenter online made a pretty good argument for their father being simply verbally abusive, citing the Sissy’s response to Brandon yelling at her to get out of his bed, and the way she was so easily seduced by David’s warmth and friendliness. I certainly see Brandon perhaps taking after their father, and treating Sissy in a similar way, and then having moments of realizing that. Or perhaps they were both neglected by their parents. Feeling unloved will screw you up more than anything else.
I haven’t been able to get access to the original script, though I’ve seen quotes and mentions of it float around. I’m interested for curiosity’s sake, but as I have said time again, canon is canon, so the only thing that really matters is what we see on the screen and how we choose to interpret it.
Whatever happened to them in their past I think the movie shows that they’re better off facing it together. Sissy needs to be taken care of, but Brandon needs her as well. They’re both self-destructive in their own ways, and the presence of the other counteracts that, though not smoothly. I’ll end with my favorite quote that McQueen said about their relationship in this movie, that it’s a story of being lost and found.