Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cringe Cringe, Bang Bang: Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

Uma Thurman, Hugo Speer and Stacy Martin in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (Photo by Christian Geisn├Žs)

One of the most striking things about Lars von Trier’s recent work is that his canvass keeps expanding, even as his view of human beings grows ever smaller. It’s a quality that links his career to Stanley Kubrick’s, though one welcome difference between the two directors is that von Trier may be getting better with actors. I don’t know if he’s cut back on his trademark torturing of the performers between takes, but in his previous film, Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst gave the least traumatized-looking big performance by an actress in the history of Lars von Trier movies. That same movie featured a superb performance by Kiefer Sutherland in a role that seemed like a stretch for him, and in von Trier’s latest, Nymphomaniac, Christian Slater, who has the small but important role of the heroine’s father, is uncharacteristically not horrible.

Unlike the later Kubrick, von Trier doesn’t come across as thinking he’s above engaging with members of the human race, but he also doesn’t seem to have a very generous or interesting view of them. Nymphomaniac is in two parts, and depending on which version you see, the whole thing runs four hours, or about half an edit longer. That’s a long time to spend watching a demonstration that people are animals motivated by bestial urges, which only the most unfeeling of us can manage any control over. (The dialogue is full of would-be epigrams, most of them stillborn; in one of the better lines, the heroine sums up romantic love as “lust with jealousy added.”) It says a lot for how far von Trier has come as a showman that the movie is only intermittently repugnant.

Nymphomaniac is the third in his “Depression” trilogy, which also includes Melancholia and began with the impressively inexplicable Antichrist. These movies represent a comeback of sorts after his aborted “USA” trilogy collapsed with the critical and commercial failure of the second installment, Manderlay. Von Trier’s control of his medium seems to grow stronger with each new movie, but he’s dropped the oppressive formalism of Dogville and Manderlay, and now he’s trying to hard to open up and explore uncharted territory that there’s something almost touching about the effort, even when the results go splat. (There are some heavy-handed experimental passages here with split screen imagery that are like an homage to Jorgan Leth, the Danish master with whom von Trier collaborated on the remarkable documentary The Five Obstructions.)

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac

Charlotte Gainsbourg, who starred in Antichrist and played Dunst’s sister in Melancholia, is the Muse of this phase of von Trier’s career. Here, she plays Joe, the self-proclaimed nymphomaniac, who is discovered lying battered and bloody in the street by an intellectual (Stellan Skarsgard), who takes her back to his apartment-refuge. There, she sits up in bed and proceeds to tell him the story of her life as a woman single-mindedly devoted to sexual satisfaction. As she, and possibly von Trier see it, she’s an outlaw whose crime is her honesty about a part of life that the “bourgeoisie” would rather dance around and tell sweet, romantic lies about. (Forced by her boss to join a sex-addicts group, she tries to go along until a vision of her impudent younger self shames her into staying true to herself and telling the repressed, hypocritical old bags in the group where they can get off.) As she relates her stories about losing her virginity to a swaggering lout (Shia LaBeouf) and forcing her attentions on a man on a train in order to win a bet—with a bag of sweets as the prize—Skarsgard listens attentively, and uses his own storehouse of cultural knowledge to explain how her actions are linked to the sport of fly fishing and the music of Bach. (In the flashbacks, her younger self is played by Stacy Martin.)

It isn’t until the start of Part Two that von Trier has Gainsbourg spell out what, given the film’s view of human behavior, is implicit in the set-up: the scientific-minded Skarsgard is a sixtyish virgin, an “asexual” being who has never had relations with any woman or man, and who claims to have no regrets about it, beyond frustrated intellectual curiosity. If he had sexual urges, he wouldn’t be able to just sit there and listen to Gainsbourg’s “dirty stories,” getting excited only by “the mathematical crap.” Skarsgard, a longstanding member of von Trier’s unofficial repertory company, has played so many satyrs and leering serial killers that the casting feels like an inside joke, and at the end, von Trier throws his own premise away, for the sake of one final, pessimistic whammy.

Felicity Gilbert, Shia LaBeouf and Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac

Clammy as Nymphomaniac often feels, especially during its sex scenes, it has its funny moments. For a while, Joe is helplessly in thrall to a businesslike sexual sadist (Jamie Bell). When she presents herself to him as a potential supplicant, he tells her, “You must bring a brown leather riding crop, and not one from a store that sells sex toys. This isn’t a masquerade.” When he’s going through their usual routine of lashing her bare bottom, and she whispers, “I want your cock,” he frowns and says, “What’s the matter with you today?” (She finally learns to surreptitiously give herself some relief by rubbing her clitoris against the couch she’s strapped to.) Bell’s character, with his formalist approach to perversion and emotional disconnect, could be a parody of the old von Trier. In the funniest and liveliest scene in the entire movie, von Trier seems to be parodying Ingmar Bergman. Uma Thurman, who has the look of a Bergman heroine, with her long blonde hair and her face looking fleshier than usual, plays the wife of one of the young Joe’s lovers, who, having badly misjudged the depth of Joe’s actual interest in him, shows up at her apartment, announcing that he’s abandoned his family to be with her. Thurman follows him, with their three small sons in tow. Thurman gives a fully committed performance that’s also a camp delight, thanks in no small part to dialogue that sounds as if she’s reading badly translated subtitles aloud. (She gives her husband a going-away present from one of the boys—a pillow with an image of “a car the little dear has embroidered”—and asks Joe, “Would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed? After all, they have a stake in this event,” and gives her husband a going-away present from one of the boys: a pillow with an image of “a car the little dear has embroidered.”)

It’s not always easy to be sure that what seems funny in Nymphomaniac is meant to be funny, or even that it’s meant to be funny in the way that it’s funny. Von Trier is less single-mindedly in control of his effects than he used to be, which is a big reason his work is more likable—I almost wrote “endearing”—than it used to be. But it’s usually a good sign when he seems to be satirizing filmmaking techniques, because filmmaking is the one thing in the world that he really understands inside and out. It’s what separates him from an artist-provocateur like Luis Bunuel; Bunuel might have sometimes settled for a degree of aesthetic raggedness that von Trier never would have accepted, but he always knew there was a world outside the movie theater. In some of his most acclaimed, and obnoxious, work, von Trier used his skills as a filmmaker, and his ruthlessness, to show that he could tell stories so stupid and rickety that no one in the audience could really believe in what was going on, and still make viewers feel that their hearts were being shredded. Michael Bay has pretty much the same talent; he just doesn’t intellectualize it in a way that can make art-house audiences feel that there’s something sophisticated in the shameless manipulation, and Bay also doesn’t try to present sadism, practiced against both the characters and the performers, as a step towards achieving spiritual transcendence. Von Trier used to claim to be carrying on the legacy of Carl Dreyer. It was a bold and impressive thing to claim, and especially convincing to people who hadn’t actually seen The Passion of Joan of Arc or Day or Wrath but knew that they had a spiritual aspect and were said to be “harrowing.” Right now, his work, at its best, more closely resembles Mad magazine with hardcore sex scenes. Which, you have to admit, is different.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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