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

Quick Take: The Wolf of Wall Street

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The signature Scorsese-voice-over narration is delivered by broker Jordan Belfort(Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf of Wall Street which guides the viewer through his incredible rise to wealth starting the in late 1980’s to his later fall. Through shady stock dealings and money laundering conducted by his raunchy, raucous, debauched company Belfort lives a life of scamming and adrenaline chasing. There isn’t a drug that Belfort doesn’t ingest with gusto and frightening frequency or a woman either. The narrative voice-over device recalls the final scene of Goodfellas in which Ray Lilotta breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. That technique is employed in this film right off the bat, which leads to it not being as powerful. Perhaps the light treatment of the story is due to the nearly unbelievable amount of partying the brokers engage in. The film abounds with prostitutes and cocaine depicted with filthy abandon. If the framing wasn’t so well done some might dare call this smutty. The ensemble cast is very entertaining, especially the unexpected inclusion of Joanna Lumley who slyly winks at her Absolutely Fabulous past. This film has an ambiguous theme of greed being destructive all the while making it look like a(mostly) grand old time. Watch The Wolf of Wall Street to see DiCaprio; his performance after ingesting antique quaaludes is physical comedic dynamite.

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)

Quick Take: In the Realm of the Senses

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Watching this infamous piece of cinema from 1976 is exhausting, but not in the way you’d think. The plot, based on a true story, isn’t too complicated: Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), a comely servant at an inn in 1930’s Japan becomes involved in a torrid love affair with the master of the house, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji). He pursues, she demurs, then the power flips, she dominates and ultimately kills him. This story is told in a repetitive manner which becomes draining of your attention. It’s all very well planned out; each scene moving the plot forward, lovely surroundings, and it’s incredibly, insanely sexually explicit. Nothing much is left out; it’s stunning in the forwardness and the great acting displayed. That’s the trick; Matsuda and Fuji’s performances are heartfelt, terrifying, moving, and they just happen to also be having sex.  It’s jarring throughout; I’m not going to claim that watching this is not unsettling.  There is a lot of imagery that is highly upsetting, but not in a standard pornographic mode.  Elder sex, food, toys, orgies; you have it all but it feels like it should be in this film.  The true story of two people who engage in risky public sex while drinking lots of sake can be explicit in content if produced well, which Nagisa Oshima did.  The audience for this film is limited; many would feel squeamish to watch alone or with others and many would find it boring. What would generally be considered pornography becomes banal when filmed with an intent on story in mind and attention to detail. Give this a look if you want a glancing take on the changing modes of Japanese society in the 1930’s intercut with an amazing amount of blatant real sex and terrible violence.

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

Spring Breakers

spring_breakers_ver15Dare I say that this film is stunning-looking?  Intense neon light spills on every surface, lit with gels. The color is saturated, yet not as frenetic as in Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. It’s at times downright dreamy, which is counterintuitive when speaking about a party/crime themed film. Spring Breakers, directed by Harmony Korine, has a plot which makes one ponder time and motive. A Malick-like voice-over of nebulous college women talking about “finding themselves” at spring break rests over dance music and intense Skrillex tracks. The young women are leaving their self-described bleak existence of college to party in sunny Florida. Sure, people like vacations, but these students act as if college is a terrible burden. College is a place one usually runs towards for freedom, not from. To the women college is a crushing place that only can be alleviated by beer and drug-drenched debauchery enjoyed with similarly-minded co-eds. The women go about procuring their traveling money in a malicious manner(robbery), sweep up their shy, Christian friend and head to The Sunshine State for adventure.

When in party paradise the women partake in an outrageous and provocative fashion, as has been noted in many a review.  The camera rests heavily on the gyrating female bikini-clad women, which can feel off-putting and exploitive. I contend that it is not exploitive, as the gaze of the camera mirrors the gaze of college students who party in this way. The party scenes are explicit in conveying the sexist environment which is prevalent within the typical college population, therefore the camera placement feels sincere and almost accusatory towards such chauvinistic behavior.

The trajectory of the film drastically shifts when one character abruptly leaves Florida; this is the character who had been anchoring the film up to that point. This is a plot choice that makes the audience question who and what the film is about. Then it’s James Franco’s time to shine as the overblown, sexy/reviling small-time hood Alien. Franco is brave with this performance. He is obviously ridiculous, but that is who he is portraying: a fool with a big mouth and a bigger ego.  There is one particularly tense scene in which Franco exhibits primal fear, perverse opportunism and the capacity for (misguided) love.

I am not personally acquainted with the young actresses’ clean work, so I cannot critique how much of a departure this film is for them. I do applaud their gusto and willingness to be free with their representation of blank, bored young women.  Their ability to project the void of youth culture into amoral action is intriguing and compelling. Spring Breakers is a harsh story which is presented in soft, dreamy neon. The end credits run with Ellie Goulding’s song Lights underneath which serves as a relief after the intense and visually assaulting finale.