Shame has three or four sections. Director Bergman doesn’t draw a lot of attention to the transition between the first parts, he hides it in the narrative. Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow are a married couple living on an island following a war. Not much information about the war, but they’re concert violinists turned farmers. Their problems are relatively trivial–von Sydow’s unsuited for their new life–and their bickering, while not exactly cute, reveals their tenderness and partnership.
Bergman moves Shame from this domestic drama territory into what should feel more familiar–von Sydow and Ullmann are suspected of being collaborators. Bergman is precise with everything related to the context of the war. He moves the war–its machines, its soldiers–through the existing setting. Through fantastic photography from Sven Nykvist and editing from Ulla Ryghe, great sound design, the war, which can’t surprise von Sydow and Ullmann, can’t surprise the viewer either. Except to recognize the lack of reaction. Bergman doesn’t desensitize, he encompasses the viewer in the despair.
And then Shame changes again. Because the viewer’s already submerged, the change isn’t jarring. It’s almost tranquil, even as the film’s action becomes more and more perilous, the relationship between von Sydow and Ullmann becoming poisonous just to observe. Everyone is trapped, viewer included.
The film hinges on the performances, of course. von Sydow and Ullmann are both extraordinary. He gets better material second half, she first.
Shame’s exceptional. Bergman’s conciseness, Ullmann and von Sydow; so great.