Thursday, February 27, 2014

Rohan Goes Deep Inside Nymph()maniac

(Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK, got a look at the complete Nymphomaniac, the latest cinematic provocation by Lars von Trier, and has generously shared his thoughts with us in advance of the movie's US opening. We're always happy to include his posts here, and recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)  

Controversy, rightly or wrongly, attends a Lars von Trier picture like hype accompanies the news of a comic book adaptation. The marketing for his latest work, the two parts of Nymphomaniac, teases us with posters of the cast making an ‘o-face’ and a cheeky () between the h and m in the title. Along with promises of scenes featuring real sex and various director’s cuts for cinema releases, the stage was set for Lars von Trier to make his most divisive film to date.

Curiously enough Nymphomaniac struck me as one of the director’s most disengaging and emotionally empty films. A lot can be said of the director’s thoughts on the worth of human life, his depiction of females and heroines who inevitably march down a path of self-destruction, and his commentary on sexuality as “the strongest force in human beings.” But above all, the film feels visually stunted which leads the four hours to become tiresome even before the first volume is through.

Like all of his films, the construction of the art is clear from the beginning. Rammstein’s industrial metal ‘Führe Mich’ belts out over a sequence where a man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), finds a woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), beaten and bloodied in a dark alleyway, clearly filmed on a set, as is the bedroom where he helps her recuperate. Once at his house, the film begins its bildungsroman narrative as Joe tells Seligman her story of nymphomania and why she’s a ‘bad human being’ for how she’s led her life. In a rather contrived way the two characters couldn’t be further apart in terms of sexual experiences, with Seligman the voice of purity and forgiveness, acting as a confessional output for Joe. But by telling the story within this narrative structure the film lacks that relentless race to despair which made previous films like Dancer In The Dark, Dogville, Europa, The Element of Crime, and Melancholia (to name but a few), so undeniably watchable and engaging. This is the only film (which I’ve seen) of his to be told in flashback and from a single viewpoint, and I don’t feel the narrative style is where his talents for storytelling lie.

Moreover, the style to which audiences have become accustomed over the past 15 years, involving handheld camera, multiple and frequent edits and camera angle changes which lends his films a curiously unsettling and unpredictable aura, is mostly gone, replaced by on-screen diagrams, stock footage, and illustrations from angling books. Oh, and a montage of flaccid penii from all types of men. Obviously.

Where the film will surprise audiences is in just how frequently funny it is. Von Trier clearly has a wicked sense of humour and this is his most amusing film after Direktøren for det hele (aka The Boss Of It All). If anything, however, the tone between humour and dark sexuality leads the film to become all too frequently unbalanced. The only time the film is truly unsettling is when Joe visits, on several occasions, a man who physically hurts women in some of the most bizarre scenes you may see in mainstream cinema. I loved these sequences because I had no idea what would happen next; classic von Trier. Another positive is how sex is portrayed in the film; it is never sexy or glossy and there’s nothing tender or romantic about it whatsoever.

This brings an end to von Trier’s ‘depression’ trilogy which started with Antichrist (the only film of his I would rate under a 7 on a 1-to-10 scale) with the excellent Melancholia in the middle. It is far from his best work and features a final scene which is frustratingly nonsensical, but it remains watchable throughout and is bound to lead to philosophical debates on gender, sex, and sexuality long after the film has finished. Though I was looking for more from a film experience from a director I’ve come to admire so much, one thing is for sure: von Trier's films demand to be seen by anyone who values a film maker with a unique cinematic eye.

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