Friday, March 21, 2014

The story of ()

In some suitably indeterminate period, in a suitably theatrical alley-crossroads, our bloodied and bruised heroine is roused from her death-like slumber by an elder Good Samaritan, offering only tea, a cosy bed, an ear. The pair retires to the Good Samaritan’s hovel. She has a story to tell and he has all the time in the world, or at the very least the next four hours. We are one foot in the realm of erotic fable, a form that invites tautology and exhaustion, objectification as route to oblivion. Our other foot? It’s stepped into a hall of mirrors, and every reflection reveals Lars von Trier.

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), “I’m just a bad human being.” But Seligman—from the German, literally, “blessed man”—doesn’t believe in sin and he doesn’t believe in bad people. This is an invitation. She’s a nymphomaniac, he’s an asexual: you could not ask for more ideal listener. And so she begins her story, the father (Christian Slater) she adored and the mother (Connie Nielsen) she didn’t, the preternatural interest in her genitals, the burgeoning sense that she is destined to live in contradiction of society’s love fixation. By adolescence, young Joe (Stacy Martin) embarks on a journey of self-actualization whose itinerary is the indiscriminate accumulation of sex partners—“lovers” would seem far too sentimental a word. She describes the loss of her virginity to a po-faced cockney mechanic named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) who approaches intercourse like he’s changing a spark plug. She learns the finer points of aggressive seduction while cruising on a passenger train with a girlfriend. She briefly flirts with being part of a group of like-minded girls—“Mea vulva, mea maxima vulva,” goes their motto—before resigning herself to the inherent solitude of her single-minded lifestyle choice. She has no apparent interest in women, multiples or kinks unless dictated by another, so Joe’s story has little to do with sexual exploration or any sort of joy that extends beyond the time it takes to orgasm. Which should give you fair warning that Nymphomaniac, despite its provocative title and promise of explicit sex, is not at all a sexy movie. Its titillation is of the intellectual or formal or aesthetic variety. And like nearly every such exercise from von Trier, all of Nymphomaniac’s most compelling elements—and, to be sure, they are numerous—get us hot and bothered for what is finally a most shallow sort of satisfaction, and the dumbest ending in his filmography. 

Von Trier has always been far stronger as a conceptualist or crafter of bold images than as a storyteller or filmmaker per se, but complex structures serve him well. Nymphomaniac finds its narrative models in 18th century literature, unfolding as picaresque confession, and the truth is that the film’s protracted duration just flies by.* There is no shortage of incident or novel variation. There is a truly remarkable sequence in which a character identified only as Mrs. H. (Uma Thurman) unexpectedly arrives at Joe’s apartment after learning that her husband, duped into believing that his promiscuous mistress wants him for herself, is leaving her and shacking up with Joe. There’s a curious if not entirely convincing episode in which a man named K (Jamie Bell) accepts Joe’s application to take a regular beating. There is Joe’s late vocation as a debt collector, her sexual experience giving her unusual insight into people’s repressed desires. And there is, alas, the eternal return of Jerôme, a fairly tiresome character to whom Joe is inexplicably attached—the first cut is the deepest, I guess—though that constant sense of LaBeouf being totally overwhelmed as an actor serves the character. All the while we are always returning to that hovel where Seligman listens and discusses with Joe a smattering of oddly related subjects, such as the uses of a cake fork, fly fishing, polyphonic music and Zeno’s paradox. These digressions are pretty delightful. All the while we are also treated to veiled allusions to von Trier’s greatest hits: there are plot developments or images that distinctly recall Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom, Dogville—see Joe laying in a coffin of grass—and, no doubt, other von Trier titles that I missed. Von Trier has said that he is closest to his female protagonists, and indeed, he is a bit like his nympho narrator, giving himself a vehicle through which he can relive his past glories. I read a tweet in which film historian Mark Cousins complained that Nymphomaniac should have followed Joe into old age, and I thoroughly agree, but von Trier is still in his 50s. Perhaps in the coming decades we’ll be granted a Nymphomaniac Volume III. Until then, we’re stuck with this feeble climax, and that empty feeling that follows fits of excitement.  

*Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II are being released simultaneously in Toronto as two separate tickets, which strikes me as a bit unfair since neither Volume stands on its own.

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