Nymphomaniac (2013)

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (2013) movie posterNymphomaniac Vol. 2 (2013) movie poster

director Lars von Trier
viewed: 08/15/2014

Dude, who knows what goes on in the mind of filmmaker/provocateur, Lars von Trier?  Really.

It might be easier to intuit (or assume) if he was pure filmmaker and not a known provocateur.  But this film, from its title, its subject matter, its emphasis on showing non-simulated sex in its depiction, in some ways feels almost under a certain tinge of Exploitation.

Simply, the film follows an intellectual (Stellan Skarsgård) who stumbles on a beaten woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who he takes to his house to care for.  She tells him her story, that she is a nymphomaniac, and their dialog brings about an episodic re-examination of her life with numerous intellectual asides and contrasts.

Von Trier broke the film into two “Volumes” but on my watching, it feels much more like two parts of a singular whole.  So it’s over 4 hours of material, loaded with perversity, humor, dramas, pain and degradation.

Gainsbourg, between this film and Antichrist (2009), has earned all rights to being von Trier’s ultimate female muse, playing out with vast gravity all kinds of torment, torture, and humiliation that it seems that he can conceive. If von Trier is not a misogynist, he does a good job at inhabiting one, as this film (again paired with Antichrist — maybe an extension of Antichrist), is a film made with misogyny in mind.

At points, the film takes on a more whimsical tone, which reminded me of European sex comedies of the 1970’s or 1980’s, the soft-core tales of sexual misadventure and conquests, meant to play in a tone of titillation and erotica.  As many have noted, Nymphomaniac is anything but erotic.  It’s a tortuous tale, outre and extreme, and epic.

Is he taking the piss?  If he means this as a joke of some sort, he’s all in.

It’s over four hours of deeply considered loathing, sadism, and joyless punishment.  But it’s no hack job.  He gets some amazing performances from some of his cast and the film is not some slapped-together pile of hooey. For as long as the damn thing is, it went by a bit faster than I expected.  Actually, I think if I’d realized the duration that I was getting into I might not have gotten into it at all.

Quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine what he’s got left to shed on his audience.

Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia (2011) movie poster

director Lars von Trier
viewed: 04/09/2012

Lars von Trier’s films aren’t meant to be enjoyed, they’re meant to be endured.  Without a doubt that was true of his last film, Antichrist (2009), a surreal horror show filled with psychic violence and female castration.  Melancholia, on the other hand, is about depression and the end of the world.  At least no one cuts off a clitoris in this one.

The film is parted into two segments, named for the sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Dunst is a bipolar bride in a lavish wedding reception in her honor, facing her nastily negative iconoclast mother (Charlotte Rampling) and her besotted, genial father (John Hurt) and her crassly capitalistic boss (Stellan Skarsgård).  She goes through a series of increasingly odd behaviors in opposition to the festivities, eventually sinking the efforts of the event, sending everyone home miserable and unhappy.

The second part focuses on the coming of a planet that has been hiding “behind the sun,” Melancholia, which scientists and Claire’s billionaire husband (Kiefer Sutherland) think will dodge Earth in a near miss.  Claire, who rationally tried to hold the wedding party together, now starts freaking out about the end of the world and the inevitable death of herself, the world, and her child.  Justine is more nonplussed by the end of the world.

The whole thing takes place on Sutherland’s super fancy estate, which houses an 18-hole golf course of which he is very proud.  Like so much of von Trier’s films, things take place in an isolated setting, in a microcosm rather than in the “real” world.  Unlike his Dogme 95 films, which shunned artifice, von Trier employs visual effects and stages some very painterly sequences of great visual beauty. In this, it resembles Antichrist to a measure.

Supposedly, the film was conceived of as von Trier was going through therapy for a depression that he suffered.  The whole thing, though, seems more metaphorical than literal, though Dunst earned a lot of (pretty well-deserved) kudos for her performance as the woman trying to keep a happy public face as her interior implodes.  I mean, the simple, though perhaps too obvious metaphor of the end of the world, hiding right behind the sun, a planet named for the illness that comes out of hiding and brings people often to their own ends…it’s all right there.

The director also cites German Romanticism as an influence/concept of which the film delves, using Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as the primary musical motif.  This line of thought is perhaps what led von Trier to make some rather unfortunate statements at Cannes, where the film was debuted last year, seeing in himself something of a Germanic tradition and making a statement about “understanding Hitler”.  What?  Too soon?  Von Trier is a provocateur for certain, probably deals with various mental issues, and is likely one of the more maverick film makers of his generation.   There is always something to be said after watching one of his films.  The provocation is often contemplative.  The thoughts, however, are rarely, “Wow, I can’t wait to see (endure) that again!”


Dogville (2003) movie poster

(2003) director Lars von Trier
viewed: 05/04/11

Though it’s not a was never a theatrical play, Lars von Trier’s Dogtville was shot on a minimalist set that has more the feel of a stage than of a “place”.   The set of Dogville, the entire setting of the entire film, is a flat space, with most of the buildings merely represented by drawn lines and names on the ground.  An initial overhead shot shows the entire layout.  Some buildings have a wall or two and some rooms have pieces of furniture.

The film is also segmented into chapters, which have title cards and descriptions.  And there is a narrative voice-over, by John Hurt, telling the tale of the town, its people, and the woman (Nicole Kidman) who shows up in town seeking asylum from criminal pursuers.  The whole thing foregrounds the artifice of the production, which is no doubt a part of the intent.  But the story that is told, while dark and cynical, is relatively straight-forward.  Actually, I think that if the film had been shot in a more normal format, a period film with actors in period clothes and in a real location, it might have carried a fairly traditional tone.

But this is Lars von Trier, who is anything but conventional.  The film was the first in a planned series of three (2005’s Manderlay was part two, also shot in with the same technique), but the third film has not yet been made, if it ever will.  The series was called “USA – Land of Opportunities”, and knowing von Trier’s jaded perspective on the USA, there is doubtlessly a critique not just of the human psyche, but particular to that of the American psyche.

Kidman’s character is taken in by the town, posed as a test of morality and goodness in the town.  They know that she is wanted by gangsters and that they could cash in by turning her in.  Her moral test is to prove her worth, though she’s never worked a day in her life, offering assistance to the reluctant townspeople.  The test of the morals of the townspeople is that in accepting her in, they wind up abusing her, eventually using her for sex and chaining her to a bed.  The town fails their moral test, and they pay for it in blood.

The cast is quite stellar, including Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Chloë Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Bettany, and Ben Gazzara to name a few.   And the film is quite good.  As I noted before, if it had been shot with this cast in a more traditional setting, it would probably have had more commercial appeal.  It got solid reviews, and a friend of mine recommended strongly.

The anti-American aspect comes in most pointedly at the end, when David Bowie’s “Young Americans” blasts from the soundtrack, accompanied by a series of black-and-while images of poverty in America.  This sudden juxtaposition of images of reality, played against a yearning song about Americans is jarring.  What exactly does von Trier mean by this?  His story, which has a figurative nature, played out in a highly artificial landscape, seems cohesive at least in its idea, but then these images of poverty which are drawn from reality, it’s a very clear juncture, but at what end?

I mean, I get it, that there is and has long been great poverty in the United States despite having so much wealth in the country as a whole.  I get it that in this story about the crass immorality of this small town of pretended niceness and “aw gosh” charms is critical.  But anyways, the two things didn’t match up for me.  And having not seen Manderlay, or the unfinished final film, I’d just be guessing anyways.

It’s an interesting film, Dogville, among Quentin Tarantino’s top 20 films of the past 20 years.  But it wasn’t a “wow” for me.  For my money, Antichrist (2009), while quite coarse and trying, was a more successful Lars von Trier than Dogville, but who knows?


Antichrist (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Lars von Trier
viewed: 11/14/10

This controversial art/horror film by perennially controversial Danish film-maker Lars von Trier doesn’t make for easy film-viewing.  Which is in line with von Trier’s precepts.  Meaning that he doesn’t make films that are easy or unchallenging.  He wants to engage (or enrage) an audience, provoke, stir, incite.  And this film had its anticipated splash when it premiered at Cannes last year, drawing raves and spite, as well as an admonishment for misogyny.

It’s something else.

I was brought to mind of some melding of David Lynch and Takeshi Miike perhaps.  But that’s a little discrediting of von Trier.  It’s not so derivative that it’s exactly “like” anything really (except perhaps some of his own work).  It’s a strangely insular story, harrowing emotionally, but even more harrowing in its brutality.  He certainly makes his actors earn their money.

It’s the story of an American couple whose toddler falls to his death while they are in the throes of lovemaking.  The man, Willem Dafoe, is a therapist, who tries to work his own brand or therapy on the grieving mother who is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  The process takes them into a cabin in the woods, a site of trauma, where they confront the fears and realities of grief and nature, life and death.

The film is all about psychology, therapy, and quite profoundly Freudian.   Gainsbourg has been studying Gynocide, historical misogynies, and somewhere at the root of all meaning of this film, this nature of evil proves out that “Nature IS Evil”.   Somehow, deep down, everything in their Eden is evil, particularly the woman’s own nature, especially when it is cut loose.

It’s one of those films with lots of potential readings.  I mean, it would be easy on the surface of the narrative, and focusing on some of the film’s most violent and visual moments, to ferret out a thick streak of misogyny.  But is that von Trier’s point, that women are evil?  Or is there something purely sinister and condescending in Dafoe’s character, his patronizing, emotionless process of “therapy”?  And what of all the weird symbolism?

The film is a bit of a mind-fuck, and a painful one at that. While there are striking visuals, moments of beauty, the film is more often a grueling horror show of emotions, eventually unravelling into a much more graphic and brutal, more traditional horror show of bizarre violence.

It’s one of those kinds of films where if you were simply trying to give a “star rating” to, you’d be hard pressed to figure out what it merited.  Is it genius?  The Criterion Collection, which released the film on DVD, has a pretty stellar track record with selecting the cream of World Cinema.  Is it pretentious, potentially offensive, art?  I can guarantee you that more than half of the movie-going public wouldn’t begin to know what to do with this film.  Did I enjoy it?  Jesus, I don’t know.

One thing about writing this film diary, which is not beholden to any real rules of criticism, journalism, or anything, is that I don’t need to necessarily come to any conclusions.  I certainly have not yet personally come to any conclusions about Antichrist.   I don’t know that I will any time soon.

The Element of Crime

The Element of Crime (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Lars von Trier
viewed: 05/04/09

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is not an easy guy to describe or contextualize.  He’s a bizarre guy, with a radical philosophy about cinema, has made many films that are variously edgy or complicated, and he’s experience mixed adoration and dislike.  As well, his films are all over the place in their natures and style, and he’s often changing what he does or what he focuses on.  Safe to say, he likes to challenge his viewers, he’s a radical, and he has at times been brilliant and innovative.

I’ve seen a few of his films over the years, but I had never seen his early films, though I had often thought them to be likely interesting.  Why this made it up in my queue at this point, I cannot say.  The Element of Crime is Lars von Trier’s first feature film, the first of a series of films referred to as his “Europa” trilogy.  It’s quite different from his later Dogme 95 aesthetic and contemporary aesthetic, much more visual artifice and effects, a Surrealism.

The film is a mixture of noir and Surrealism, a little Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), and perhaps and Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988) (without the animation, just the visual aesthetic).  A detective returns to Europe (via psychotherapy) after years of exile in Egypt and seeks a child murderer according to the rules set in his mentor’s book “The Element of Crime”, which has him follow a criminal so closely as to identify with him.  Europe is in constant darkness, with pools of leaking water, dead horses, clutter and mess.  The film is highly visual, with stylized imagery, shot in color tones of yellow and red with occasional counterpoints of blue or green, shot with a technique using sodium lighting, which offers a sepia-tint hue to everything.

The story is unclear at best.  The film is much more about the design and the experience than about the full-on reality of the situation.  Frankly, and I am pretty open-minded in these things compared to most people, I didn’t really “get” it.  I mean, I followed the story, such as it was, and I could see where the detective who was turning understanding into replicating the killer was going, but I didn’t really “get” the whole of the point.  The colors, which looked cool, as did much of the art design in general, were visual pleasure, but conscious nonsense.  I can see this being one of those films where if you’d seen it at the right time and place might have seemed really cool.  It drips “avant-garde”, a kind of avant-garde that seemed to have burnt itself out in the 1980’s.  But to expend as much concentration as I did…I don’t know if I felt rewarded.

It was interesting.  It was less intentionally annoying or dissonant than some of others of von Trier’s films.  But it wasn’t… I don’t know.  It wasn’t a lot of things.  But it was still kind of cool.  Supposedly, as part of his “Europa trilogy” it’s about the decay of Europe.  Um, okay.  Europe is murky.  It’s distopia.  Children are being killed.  Identity.  Detection.  Uh…?  Yeah, I don’t really know.