Thursday, March 20, 2014

Nymphomaniac is Lars von Trier's "mea maximum opus"

People who loved Lars von Trier's 2003 film Dogville will probably love his new film Nymphomaniac, opening this weekend (in two parts) at the Vancity Theatre; but they may love it a little bit less. That's about as close to a capsule review as I can offer of a rather daunting film: Nymphomaniac is perhaps von Trier's most fully realized and satisfying film since that one, and owes a great deal to it on the level of story - both films being about a persecuted, misunderstood female outsider who ultimately, after suffering much abuse and internalizing society's judgement against her, has to stand up for herself with an act of violence (though the end of Nymphomaniac is not quite so Tony Scottish as the climax of Dogville). It is also a more ambitious, digressive, and unwieldy film, though, requiring, even in its shorter (4 hour, two volume) cut, a fair amount of commitment and energy on the part of viewers, which casual filmgoers may not be up to.

There are formal similarities to Dogville, too, though not straightforward ones; what Dogville does with the more theatrical aspects of cinema - stripping down sets to a near-barren sound stage, so you are constantly aware of the film's artifice - is done here with storytelling and language. Each episode in the film is derived from the narration of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), which serves as the film's frame, but there are also constant textual asides and references to other works of art or literature - from manuals on fly fishing to Biblical allusions to articulate digressions on Bach, or rock climbing, or Russian religious icons. There are even stories within stories, used to demonstrate the power of narrative (as when Gainsbourg gains the upper hand on a male character by pulling down his shorts and offering him different erotic scenarios until she finds one that stiffens him). Whatever we take the theme of Nymphomaniac to be - I will dodge that question - chances are, it is explicitly tabled and discussed at some point in the film. Even a clever visual pun - that of a fishing fly embedded in the plaster of the room - needs to be expressed in words in this film, so you can get the joke (of being a "fly on the wall" during Joe's confessional; the joke escaped notice until underscored with dialogue and then seemed all too obvious).
People who enjoy von Trier's somewhat self-conscious approach to dialogue, who don't mind idea-rich, thematically-loaded, My Dinner With Andre-esque discourse (including mini-rants that appear to offer von Trier's own feelings on political correctness, hypocrisy, sentimentality, pedophilia, and on charged topics of some relevance to his recent history, like that of anti-Semitism) will be pleased; von Trier may be straining the limits of how much his audience can take, but he does so with a certain geeky flair and charm, and if you're prepared to indulge him, much of what he has to say is amusing and thought-provoking. People who read will be able to appreciate this movie far more than people who do not - though even Joe herself gets impatient with some of Seligman's digressions, in scenes that feel very much like von Trier having his main character chide her author for his self-indulgence (itself a fairly self-indulgent thing for an author to write into a film). There surely has never been a talkier, more literate film to feature images of hardcore sex.
All that said, even in this so-called "censored" cut, there is no shortage of frank depictions of sexuality. I'd read somewhere that none of the sex is actually sexy; I would beg to differ - there are many ugly and painful transactions, but also some beautiful and compelling ones; it is a sexy film, at least at times. Cocks and cunts are sucked and licked. There are several erect penises on view - something I'm very happy to be seeing more frequently on screen these days; there's even a hard cock in The Wolf of Wall Street! There are uncomfortable, vividly realized floggings and scenes of abusive, unsafe sadomasochism. There is, in volume two, a grotesquely-realized provocation in which two African men attempt to DP Joe, their gigantic members filling the screen on either side of Charlotte Gainsbourg's face, an unsubtle bit of bait to those who would accuse von Trier of trading in racist stereotypes (this scene immediately precludes a lecture on political correctness and on the hypocrisy of a society that rewards those who mean ill but speak well, while punishing those who mean well but speak wrongly. Of course, the jury is out as to whether dear Lars actually does mean well; to decide that issue would require understanding what he's doing, and I'm not sure even he can lay that claim).
The film begins and ends on two disclaimers about these sexual images - that the film is an "abridged, censored" cut of the film, made with von Trier's approval but without his participation; and that the professional actors employed in the film do not engage in penetrative intercourse, but are body-doubled in any of the film's "hardcore" moments. Neither claim sat entirely comfortably, in fact: abridged though it is, there is nothing whatsoever that seems "censored" about Nymphomaniac as I saw it (though I gather there is MORE in the way of closeups and cumshots and so forth in the long cut). And the sex scenes sure SEEM real; I realize you can digitally fake pretty much anything, but I'd be very curious where the line is drawn in each scene. Surely some actors wanted to push it farther than others? (unfaked intercourse is not THAT daring in cinema). Even it it's not really Charlotte Gainsbourg sucking on Jean-Marc Barr's erection - even if it's not really Shia LaBeouf's penis seen sliding in and out of young Joe (played by Stacy Martin) - these scenes are startling and memorable. There's a hell of a "making of" video on how exactly they were faked, if they were...

By the way - LaBeouf is very good in this film, and appears to be a talented actor, whatever negative press he has received lately. (Only just now caught up with his Daniel Clowes plagiarism - a good little film, if somewhat nasty to critics and bloggers; how he ever expected to get away with his theft of Clowes' story is beyond me, especially since he's baiting the very people who are going to be leaping to condemn him. It almost seems like a sort of career suicide, which seems a shame. Maybe his acting in Disturbia, which many thought to be a plagiarism of Rear Window and the Cornell Woolrich story on which it is based, helped blur the lines for him?). The only quibble I have is that he, Christian Slater, and Jamie Bell all affect accents, but only Bell - who plays Joe's brutal dom, in the film's nastiest moments - pulls his off, by choosing to imagine the film (given no explicit location) is set somewhere in Scotland, presumably because Glasgow and Aberdeen are mentioned. Bell is in fact English, so perhaps that's his own accent we're hearing - or perhaps he's just smart enough to pick a region and stick to it. Both LaBeouf and Slater appear to be affecting non-specific, regionless "European accents," which is a bit silly, really; I'm not sure what von Trier's directions to them might have been in this regard (tho' he clearly gave different ones to Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe, who wisely use their own voices). Maybe he was trying to have some fun at the expense of a couple of his star Americans? The accents make both performances somewhat awkward, distract from otherwise serviceable turns.
In any event, Nymphomaniac is well worth a look, if you want to see what I guess will go down as Lars von Trier's magnum opus - though it's a bit too "magnum" for me to embrace fully; I still think his greatest film is Europa (Zentropa), which is just as cocky, but in a more parsimonious way (and with no actual cocks on display). Nymphomaniac has a bit of bloat to it that usually seems to accompany American films, when filmmakers get good enough reviews and big enough budgets to really indulge themselves, losing all sense of restraint - there's a bit of a Paul Thomas Anderson factor, if you see what I mean ("There Will Be Semen"). But it's more interesting and provocative than most such films (I can't really say it's more restrained.)

All I have left are random observations - that Ms. Gainsbourg is very good, and sings the end song (a cleverly-picked cover of "Hey, Joe") herself; that my favourite segment of the film is actually the first few minutes, before the Rammstein sets in, as we see shots of an alley, snow, and trickling water, and enter into a brief, Tarkovskian (or Bela-Tarrish) rapture of engaged cinematic perception; that the second part is the funnier, bolder, more dynamic half of the film, and ends on a rather satisfying punchline that is worth sticking around for - so don't just see the first half! (Tom Charity noted at the press screening that a discount applies to those seeing both halves of the film; you don't have to pay two full admission prices). There is also a very curious thank you in the end credits to Lars Ulrich of Metallica, which I don't really understand but find apt - Lars von Trier is every bit as much "some kind of monster" as Metallica, at this point, at least as far as this film is concerned. Plus the whole thing about the fishing fly - about disguising a hook so that it looks like something the fish likes - is as apt and striking a metaphor for von Trier's cinema as I've ever encountered. He's not making genre films - but meta-cinema disguised as genre films, to hook us gullible fish. The film succeeds well enough at doing that, though I'm getting a bit tired of meta-cinema in general, these days. The cocks, at least, are kind of fresh.

1 comment:

stefaneechi said...


I think its meaning and intent is summed up in the monologue Sigilman gives at the end regarding the shame Joe feels for her actions and how that would be negligible if she were a man - it's a feminist castigation of patriarchal hypocrisy and its affect on sexuality - that she kills Sigilman is symbolic of her transcending that framework of the feminine as profane object, subjugate to the primacy of masculine desire.