Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II

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What do we talk about when we consider Lars von Trier’s latest film Nymphomaniac Vol. I and II? The obvious would be to comment on the sex, but that is only one element of many. There has been much ink spilled already about the sex portrayed in this film and it honestly feels infantile. Yes, the director gave this film a provocative title and used unsimulated sex to incite a wee bit of scandal, yet it seems as if much of the mainstream media are acting like 11-year-old children about it. Yes, this film does include shots of sex acts and sexual practices that are not vanilla. This is not a new phenomenon; this film cannot unseat the standard-bearer of explicit films, the masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses and is nowhere as arousing as a film like Secretary. People should be discussing this film, as it is rich in content, but acting scandalized and only centering on the direct portrayal of a few sex acts is insipid.  It is dismaying to see major publications listing the explicit acts in the film instead of analyzing the themes or providing useful criticism. Yes, you will see close-ups of ‘naughty’ bits, but there is much more to be appreciated than that one facet. The story of a beaten woman, Joe(Charlotte Gainsbourg) rescued by a Good Samaritan, Seligman(Stellan Skarsgard) with whom she shares her life’s tale deserves more consideration than simply deeming it a sex film.

The roll-out of this film is one aspect that I find incredibly exciting about this endeavor. The first mention of this film happened during the infamous 2011 Cannes Melancholia press conference where von Trier sarcastically spoke about “understanding Hitler”. Not the best move on his part; one can’t act cheeky when speaking about Hitler. Several years passed and last June the first trailer or “appetizer” was released. This promotional tool would continue for six months, leaving the audience to piece together the truncated parts of the story in their minds. Film stills and posters also added to the mystery of what was to come. I had many preconceived notions about the plot and I was flat-out wrong. This is a brilliant way to lead up to a film; offer some crumbs and see what the audience’s imagination can conjure up. The film was then edited down from five and a half hours into two volumes, two hours each and released in random locales near the end of 2013. The film was released on VOD in March before the general theatrical release, just as Antichrist had been previously. I viewed Vol. I and II on VOD, as I was very impatient to see this and could not be certain of theater in my area having a screening.

Nymphomaniac alludes to von Trier’s work in several ways; themes repeat, musical cues recur and many of the same actors appear. Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe has appeared in von Trier’s last two films, joining regulars Stellan Skarsgard, Willem Dafoe, Jean-Marc Barr, and the indispensable Udo Kier. There are new faces as well including Stacy Martin as young Joe, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Mia Goth and Jamie Bell as K., who is emphatically Billy Elliot no longer. Wagner and Bach pieces plus some well-placed pop tunes are evocative of many previous films; one particular musical cue lifted from Antichrist literally made my heart race with dread.

Trier’s themes that recur in Nymphomaniac span the gamut from mystical visions to maneuvering cars. For example, the opening of Melancholia finds Justine, her groom and a chauffeur clumsily k-turning a limousine that has become stuck on a winding road. Similarly in Nymphomaniac Joe expertly parallel parks Jerome’s car, in a sequence complete with a parallel parking diagram superimposed over the road. P. finds a chocolate on her pillow, just as Justine had in Claire’s guest room in Melancholia. The otherworldly visions, both godly and satanic, which are present in Breaking the Waves and Antichrist are also echoed in this film.  Even the idea that Justine “knows things” in Melancholia is alluded to in Joe, due to a highly specific supernatural event that occurs when she is young. Trier’s well-known adulation of Andrei Tarkovsky is continued (Antichrist is dedicated to Tarkovsky) as he named Chapter Seven of Nymphomaniac ‘The Mirror’ after the Russian director’s famous film.

The sets and costuming of Nymphomaniac are drab, to highlight the assertion that Joe “demands more of the sunset”. The images which are lush tend to be set in nature, the remainder are stark to illustrate her need for more excitement and passion. The alleyway in which Joe is found beaten is a brick-lined space in which only a sliver of sun ever appears. Seligman’s apartment is sparsely decorated and the few objects displayed serve as jumping-off points for Joe’s stories. Joe’s bachelorette apartment has whitewashed walls with little ornamentation; this abode is very similar to K.’s BDSM office, which she visits later in life. The lack of decoration amplifies the idea that Joe concentrates on sexual experiences to the exclusion of much else. Similarly, her person is generally engulfed within ill-fitting, modest clothes and her hair is greasy and unkempt. Joe has extrapolated that men are enticed by certain outfits but will participate in relations regardless of the condition of the seducer.

Joe’s wardrobe and demeanor are actually refreshing when compared with other stories of female sexuality. She is not a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac due to childhood abuse; her relationship with her father is very positive and loving.  She is sexually compulsive due to the nature of human biology. Her discovery of arousal happened as a toddler and her experimentation with masturbation is a common portion of the youthful expression of sexual feelings. I was very pleased that the game of ‘playing frogs’ was presented, as little girls do act in this manner, but this behavior is not spoken about and is often discouraged and demonized. Similarly the club which Joe and her teenage friends form to distance themselves from traditional heterosexist relationships is an unusual sight; teens who do not strive after delusional romantic entanglements are rare in cinema. As Joe’s life progresses, her demeanor is that of cool indifference and control over her sexual experiences. Even when she visits K. and is treated with what can be taken as derision and sadistic violence, she is the one in control. K. does not force her to visit or adhere to his rules, she willfully seeks out his unique services and finds benefit in their interactions.

As with the majority of von Trier’s work, the ending of this film is an unsettling blow and will elicit fierce debate. Throughout the entirety of the film the conversation between Joe and Seligman serves as a conscious exposition on Joe’s story. The couple examines and critiques the events, make symbolic connections to scenarios via musings on and not limited to mathematical theory, fingernail grooming, literature and popular films. It feels as if the characters are telling the audience exactly what this film is supposed to be about; they are explaining the semiotic references so that we do not have to decipher them. The trick is that we as the audience are novices just as Seligman is; we only think we understand the events due to prior knowledge, not experience. The film begins in darkness with the sound of rain striking metal and ends in darkness, leaving shattered the illusion of truth we thought we had gained.

Authors Note: To date, I have watched the theatrical cut of this film three times, once in a theater. I have also watched the Director’s Cut(VOD), which is exceptional. If you have the time, the Director’s Cut is the real deal.  12/19/2014

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The Boss of It All

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Lars von Trier’s 2006 film is unexpectedly and happily a comedy. True to the obstinate Dane’s fashion this film innovates by utilizing a computer editing process called Automavision. In the simplest terms, the camera was placed in a fixed position and the Automavision program decided when to zoom, pan and frame the action, entirely of it’s own accord. Due to this peculiar process the film looks terrible, for the program had no idea of proper framing or color continuity. The cuts are random, the actors move up and down, even out of the frame, the f-stops are way too high at times causing retina pain. Out of all of von Trier’s films this is the most accessible, you could recommend it to your parents without blushing, but he willfully caused it to look crappy to sass the audience.

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Lars interjects himself into the film at various points to narrate the story and comment upon the conventions of the comedy genre. He is first seen in a crane outside of an office building, with his reflection in the windows. He says, “Although you see my reflection, trust me, this film won’t be worth a moment’s reflection. It’s a comedy, and harmless as such. No preaching or swaying of opinion. Just a cozy time. So why not poke fun at artsy-fartsy culture?” Here the comedy starts, with the camera showing Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), an actor through a window of an office building. Lars’ narration describes him, “So here we have a self-important out-of-work actor, who, by miraculous chance, got a job. A very special job.” This is where von Trier starts to poke fun at the absurd proclivities of certain actors who ascribe to a method (Kristoffer is committed to the ideas of a fictional playwright Gambini, whose work is alluded to as being very modern, very ‘serious’) and also the directors who confuse them with no instruction but expect them to produce an engaging character regardless of that fact. The office staff in the film doubles as insufferable actors and the boss Ravn (Peter Gantzler) doubles as von Trier himself. Despite his assertion that the film is a “cozy time” the duel-leveled way in which the characters can be read makes this film much more than von Trier wants to admit.

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The conceit of this story is that Ravn, the boss of an I.T. company in Denmark, wants to sell to Icelandic investors but has come upon a snag. Ravn never had it in him to be the boss of a company; he hates rejection and doesn’t want to be the one who has to mete out disappointing news. His solution years previous was to invent a “boss of it all” who lives in the United States and gives his directives to Ravn to carry out. This way Ravn never has to be the bad guy; he is only the messenger. This ruse worked for years, as the employees would receive bogus emails composed by Ravn in the guise of the “boss” which basically convinced them that he existed, until he decided to sell. The potential buyers want to meet this elusive boss, who does not exist, so Ravn hires the actor Kristoffer to impersonate the boss to expedite the sale. With this decision the elaborate lies unravel and the comedy of errors ensues.

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The cast comprising the company are very funny, embracing their eccentric personalities and odd company dynamics. The company produces a vague I.T. product; the jargon of which is made fun of greatly. The difference between ‘outsourcing’ or ‘off-shoring’ are amusingly discussed as well as arguments about the true nature of what they actually do, which in never made clear. The corporate culture of inclusion and coddling are also made fun of. This is an office where hugs are routinely given out, rhyming songs are sung to make others feel better, and worker’s strange and volatile behavior is tolerated and even encouraged. Gorm (Casper Christensen) has a violent temper and when he starts to recite “Autumn in the country is muggy”, watch out because someone is getting a punch in the face. Mette (Louise Mieritz) is a basket case who screams repeatedly when the photocopier runs and cries several times a day. My personal favorite is Spencer (Jean-Marc Barr), an America who for some reason works at this company. Spencer’s problem is that he cannot speak Danish, no matter how much he practices, and he is openly ridiculed by his co-workers for his lack of language skills. He mangles the language repeatedly, yet refuses to converse in English; his naive optimism that he will speak Danish correctly or will be silent evermore is delightful.

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Compared to the bulk of von Trier’s other work this film will not stir furious debate, unless one rails against the poor visual quality of the picture. Though Lars contends that this is not an important feature; that we can go home “and with a clear conscience forget everything we’ve seen…” he still directed this for a reason. It reminds me of his assertion in The Five Obstructions that he hates cartoons and then he gleefully tells Jørgen Leth to produce a cartoon, just to be a nudge. A conversation between Ravn and Kristoffer near the end of the film sums up the reason for this film existing. Ravn questions Kristoffer, “What do you hope to achieve?” To which Kristoffer replies, “Nothing. We’re just having fun.” It’s that simple, sometimes you just have to have a fun time and laugh.

Happy Friday: Nymphomaniac Chapter 6 Trailer – NSFW

Hoping you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are enjoying Hanukkah. Well looky here, another Nymphomaniac appetizer. I thought after last week’s big trailer debut that was the end of the previews, but we get more.  Like Thanksgiving leftovers for your eyes. Things are looking really desperate for Joe/”Fido”(Charlotte Gainsbourg) in this clip; this will turn out to be a blue Christmas for her.

Chapter 6: The Eastern and the Western Church (The Silent Duck)

Happy Friday: Nymphomaniac Official Trailer – NSFW

It’s here!!! It finally came (sex pun, tee, hee)!!  The official, loud, dirty trailer for Lars von Trier’s newest film.  This looks like a whole lot of fantastic; all the pieces from the previous teaser trailers are meshing. He fit some Wagner into the clip too; heard the hammering dwarfs theme from Das Rheingold, nice.  I really can’t be objective about this film, I adore his work too much to be.  I figure if you can direct something like Manderlay and not have me torch your house, you’re doing something right. Even when I want to punch von Trier (the end of Breaking the Waves, come on now, really?) I still want to kiss him more for taking film to the next level.  Apparently this film is going to be 4 hours long; joy and happiness.

Update: YouTube took down the video due to the naughtiness. Boo-hiss! Vimeo has luckily posted it instead

Old (Film) School: Musicals

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Originally written on October 24, 2002

In recent years, there has been a slight resurgence in musical films. The musical genre has gone through many changes throughout film history. It initially started as a grand spectacle not tied to any narrative. Later on, the musical was relegated to specific sequences throughout a film that helped to advance the narrative. Recently, three films have used musical conventions to varying degrees of effectiveness. The overly ambitious Moulin Rouge! used contemporary popular music in a tradition musical narrative. In Dancer in the Dark musical conventions were used, but in a massive repudiation of all that was known of musicals. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch conventions of traditional musicals are blended with a shocking story. The latter two films will be discussed for their ambitious and inventive use and redirection of musical conventions.

Though there are general rules of the musical form, much has changed over time in these films. Early in cinematic history, musicals were not part of a narrative. The musical was just a grand spectacle with popular music of the day. In 1952, the release of Singin’ in the Rain became a landmark film musical. The superb singing and dancing of the stars upped the ante of musicals. This film also used the convention of spontaneous singing. Though people do not generally start singing about their emotions in real life, in a musical this is seen as normal. In the case of Singin’ in the Rain the film follows actors who are meant to sing. Therefore their singing is not seen as so weird(Berliner, 2).

In 1960’s brought forth two notable musicals that are now classics. In 1961, West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, presented a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. This film used spontaneous singing and masterful choreography to tell the story of the doomed lovers. This musical is a repudiation because it is not a happy story and leaves audiences running for the Kleenex. In 1964, My Fair Lady arrived on the screen. This is a lighthearted retelling of Pygmalion, which starred Audrey Hepburn. This musical also used spontaneous song as a narrative device, but has a happy ending. In this way, My Fair Lady is a repetition of musical form.

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In the 1970’s, musicals became more serious, more adult, so to speak, then previously. These musicals were not often appropriate for children, for they dealt with subject matter in a much more realistic manner. In 1972, Cabaret, starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, debuted. The film takes place in the Weimar Republic right before the Nazi takeover. This musical is an amplification because the musical sequences take place at the Kit Kat Club and are sometimes interspersed with scenes from “real” life. The singing only takes place because Sally Bowles is a singer at the club and the songs reflect her feelings and those of the Germans, in general. Another amplification is the character of the Master of Ceremonies, played by Joel Grey, who is an omniscient narrator who does not exist outside the club. He somehow knows the inner workings of Sally’s psyche and also embodies the distrust of all people towards the Nazis.

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In 1973, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar was adapted for screen. This musical is a repudiation of both the musical genre and the subject matter. This film portrays Jesus as not only the messiah, but as a rock star. Judas is both annoyed with Jesus’ flagrant disregard for authority but also his seeming need for the adulation of his followers. The traditional musical sequences take place on location, in Israel. The dancers, though obviously trained, all look like ragged hippies. The final sequences of the film are not joyful, but disturbing. Jesus is crucified while a frightening montage of portraits of the crucifixion are shown on screen. Then Jesus (possibly) goes to heaven and is sung to by the reviled Judas. In the end, a somber melody is played while the cast rides off into the desert, without Jesus on the bus. This scene is chilling and shows the lengths that director Jewison went to repudiate the musical form.

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In present cinema, the musical is fairly rare. That is why Dancer in the Dark is such an interesting example of a musical. One does not even know that this film is a musical until about forty minutes into the film. Up to this point in the film non-diegetic music does not exist. The only music comes from the rehearsals Selma participates in for a community production of The Sound of Music.

When the film turns into a musical, the audience is caught off guard. This shift is a massive repudiation on the part of the director, von Trier. The musical sequences are filmed in brilliant color and transport Selma into a fantasy world of the musical. This is her only escape from her awful life of drudgery and blindness.

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The musical scenes themselves are repudiations. In these scenes, Selma’s change of reality is so drastic, that they seem fairly magical. Right after she brutally murders Bill, he is dancing with her and forgives her. So does his wife and her son Gene. In reality, these people would never have forgiven Selma, but her musical fantasies help her cope with the stress of her doomed existence.

The scene when Selma is in isolation at the jail is a repudiation of musical conventions. In this scene she does not sing her own original tune. She sings My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music to distract her from the silence of the jail. This scene is disturbing because the audience can see that the artifice of musical-as-coping-mechanism is not working any more. The use of music from another prominent musical is also a strong repudiation.

The final sequence of Dancer is most disturbing and uses the convention of spontaneous song, without launching into a fantasy world. Selma is being hanged for the murder of Bill, and is apoplectic over her demise. When Kathy informs her that Gene has gotten the operation and will see, Selma’s attitude changes drastically. A calm washes over her face and she sings a haunting song about this “Not being the last song.” This is a reference to her distaste of the end of musicals when you see the crane shot that goes out the roof and you know the film is over. Unfortunately, for Selma, she is hanged and we see the camera crane up in just the motion she described. With her death and this camera movement, we know the film is over, for the audience and also Selma.

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The repudiations in this film are used to show the fallacy of musicals. Lars von Trier was aiming to show that musicals are quite fanciful and untrue. Selma came to America because of musicals and the hope that everything there would be as wonderful as in a musical. She unfortunately found that in America money and status mean more to people than hard work for the medical care of a child. This film is truly an indictment of American culture and the void it creates in people’s hearts.

Another recent musical that is a repudiation in content is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This film follows the exploits of the transgendered rock singer Hedwig. Hedwig began life as a man and to escape Communist East Berlin, got a sex change operation to become a woman. While in America, Hedwig is left by her husband and then starts a musical career. This is when she meets with her muse, Tommy Gnosis, who breaks her heart and steals her songs.

The context in which musical sequences are used in this film are mainly performance. The songs that the band plays are of a narrative mode. We learn of Hedwig’s entire life through the songs. Wig in a Box is one of the performances that most closely mimics the style of traditional musicals (Seminara, 3). Hedwig has just been left by her husband and then her band enters her house as a grand sequence ensues. Her motor-home becomes a grand stage and the use of a sweeping crane shot in the end signals a throwback to old musicals.

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The story told in Hedwig is not of a usual musical variety. Very few, if any, musicals have centered on a transgendered subject. The only film to come close to this was Victor/Victoria from 1982. This film dealt with gayness in a joking and gay (no pun intended) way. Though the subject was unusual for a musical, Victor/Victoria was mainstream because Julie Andrews played the lead role. In Hedwig, the subject, though amusing at times, is also consciously serious.

This film is important because it offers a transgendered character who is sympathetic. Though Hedwig is often hassled for being transgendered, it is heartening to see that she will not apologize for herself. Hedwig is reminiscent of old time women performers who were oh-so-cool. When speaking of her past attempts at singing in public (though really just in front of his mother) she says, “I had tried singing once and they threw tomatoes so after the show I had a nice salad.” Or when the young Tommy Speck asks her if she had accepted Jesus Christ as her personal savior she replied, ” No, but I love his work.” These zany one-liners illustrate that Hedwig is a vibrant woman who can take anything that is thrown at her and make it entertaining and insightful.

The examination of the musical genre finds many discrepancies within the genre. The conventions of spontaneous singing and the use of song as a narrative advancing device are commonly present. The use of song as emotional expression is usual, especially in Dancer in the Dark. Yet these few modes do not seem to correlate to a common ground on what musicals are.

The stories of the musicals examined are incredibly diverse. They run the gamut from biblical drama to the suffering of poor, blind Selma. The main characteristic of musicals, then seems to be, not the repetitions, repudiations, or amplifications of the genre, but the strong characters presented in each. When speaking of melodrama, which can also be compared to musicals, Noel Carrol stated,

 “One important, recurring motif here is that the victim of melodramatic misfortune often accepts her suffering in order to benefit another, often at the expense of her own personal desires and interests. Sometimes, in fact the character’s misfortune is a result of the sacrifices she has made on behalf of others (Plantinga, 36).”

Most of the films examined follow this argument. Selma is no less dying for the sins of Bill, as Jesus is dying for the sins of the Israelites. Hedwig must endure constant identity crisis because of the choices that were made for her. This comparison can be made with most musicals, and shows the real link between them. Strong lead characters who must rise above diversity to meet their goals are the mainstay of musicals. The conventions of the musical lend themselves to telling stories about the most uncommon, yet interesting people whose stories would not be as vibrant without the musical mode.

References

Aloi, P. (2001) Little Seen, Long Remembered. Art New England, 22 no 6 3, 83 0/N. Retrieved on October 17,2002, from the Wilson Web database.

Arroyo, J. (2000) How do you solve a problem like von Trier? Sight & Sound, ns10 no 9 14-   16 S. Retrieved on October 17, 2002, from the Wilson Web database.

Berlinger, T. (2002) The Sounds of Silence: Songs on Hollywood Films since the 1960’s. Style, 36 no119-35. Retrieved on October 17, 2002, from the Wilson Web database.

Plantinga, C. and Smith, G.(Eds.) (1999). Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion.Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Seminara, 0.(2001) Music (Wo)Man. American Cinematographer, 82 no 7 20-7. Retrieved on October 17, 2002, from the Wilson Web database.

Happy Friday: Nymphomaniac Chapter 2 Trailer

The Chapter Two trailer from Nymphomaniac was released today, hooray!! Shia LeBeouf appears as a sleazy boss; this does not look like it will end well.  Thank goodness that von Trier is releasing these “appetizers”, the wait for a possible Christmas release feels interminable.

Chapter 2  – Jerôme