Saturday, April 19, 2014

Love: Nymphomaniac Vol. I and II

I have been scolded -on numerous occasions- for liking Lars Von Trier.  This is, of course, because he's perhaps the most petulant of provocateurs, the type of character who doesn't know when to shut his mouth, who makes films that are challenging in part because they're often painful to watch, and who seems to love shock value for the derision it inspires.  Believe me, I get it.  Liking Von Trier isn't something easily dismissed with a "well, he's not for everybody," and I find that the place I get the most flack for my fascination with the director is, weirdly, in academic confines.  This may be solely because he's discussed more there than anywhere else (telling), but I've found, repeatedly, that the most brilliant of people tend to bristle at the mention of his name for any number of reasons. There are those who hate shock for the sake of shock (sure, he does it, but the purpose is arguable), there are those who immediately spit back a regurgitated mention of how heavily misogynistic his films are (a point I actively disagree with), there are those who hold on to how utterly pretentious the Dogme 95 movement was.  Their reasons are many, and from them I have learned this: it may be hard to be Lars Von Trier, but in some ways it's perhaps just as difficult to be someone captivated by his work.  

There's something about what Von Trier does that gets to me at a level that's truly disruptive.  It's been a month since I opened up this post and started filling in the images to run a write up on Nymphomaniac Vol. I.  It's been several weeks since I went to the theater and saw the closing chapter of the film.  My opinion on the film (I will be considering it in its entirety) has mirrored the movements of its narrative arc and its many mood swings. At this point, I've decided that I love it, that it's a truly worthwhile piece of art, yet I've struggled to write anything cohesive on precisely why that is.  Writing about any Lars Von Trier film too soon is a mistake, and yet the drive to do so is compulsive if you're a person who loves cinema, who loves analysis, who loves to break things into pieces and examine how they function.  That's the thing about his work: it's haunting.  More than that, it's consuming. His films are relentless moods, things that poke at you and taunt you and make demands that you may not be willing to submit to.  This more than anything, I think, is what riles his detractors so much: they don't want to play the game and what he shows them is something they don't particularly want to be shown.  The people I know who love these films are the people who allow the haunting to happen.  We let these movies in, mull over them, fixate on them, and find something rewarding in the process.  We want to talk about them, we want to get angry about them.  We want to hate them even as we love them, and in this we lend ourselves to a kind of cinematic masochism.  
This is, oddly, what Nymphomaniac is essentially about.  It's about the viewer, it's about the critics, it's about Von Trier.  If your response, dear reader, is to look askance and ask how I managed to bullshit that out of a four hour odyssey of cripplingly dark humor, pornographic sex, and digressive pontificating on things like fly fishing, stay with me. I'm not the first person to suggest this, but the more I circle around these snippets of conversation the more I find myself fascinated by the project's potential.  Like the writings of all those French libertines of yore, Nymphomaniac may feature sex as a lure, but it can't get away from theorizing, explaining, talking endlessly and incessantly to pull from theology, philosophy, politics and mathematics until the pornographic elements are stripped of the erotic and made utterly clinical.  The sex in Nymphomaniac, while graphic, is undercut via a number of techniques.  It's made to comment on itself,  to be viewed as quite deliberately indulgent, absurd, or boring by turn, and is aided by a muted color palette.  With rare exception, Von Trier shoots the film in stark, sad looking rooms touched by dirt, or stains, or the reek of something slightly sour.  Something slightly (to reference American Hustle's perfume) rotten.  We're being told the story of Joe, a woman who self-identifies as a nymphomaniac. In the opening scene of Vol. 1 she's found seemingly beaten and unconscious on a sidewalk by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a quiet man who invites her in, offers her a cup of tea and a bed to rest in.  Here, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) begins to tell her story from the beginning.  From chapter to chapter, childhood to adulthood, she chronicles the way her psychological dependency on sex (or something like it) has driven much of her existence. 
Prior to the film's release, Von Trier referred to Nymphomaniac cavalierly as "a comedy," and though it seemed unlikely, Vol. I makes bold strides in that direction. In truth, the film experiences something of a tonal shift in Vol. II, but it's surprising how often Joe's story is retold with darkly comedic flair. The interplay of Joe's stories and Seligman's forced digressions make for more than a few amusing exchanges, and there are whole scenes that present a deft mastery of awkward humor at once laugh out loud funny and emotionally raw.  It's unclear whether what we're seeing of the stories is meant to appear as flashback or Seligman's imagined interpretation of events, but the narrative frame allows the story's delivery to be somehow painless.  For much of Vol. I, Gainsbourg's more mature iteration of Joe is confined to bed with a cup of tea while her younger self (Stacy Martin) suffers a host of oddly amusing sexual misadventures.  Gainsbourg's Joe breaks the story into chapters, a literary trope much of Von Trier's work features, and we are treated to a playful, coy subversion of, well, the career of the director. Though the film is about Joe, it winds up being about Von Trier just as often, and the entire thing is laced with parallels, reflections, and responses.  In Vol. I, there is still some sort of light in Joe, and still some sort of light in Von Trier.  It seems to cover his career up to, roughly, Breaking the Waves.  Sex and filmmaking (or, the production of art in general) become conflated, and as the film shifts from chapter to chapter, from mood piece to mood piece, we begin to understand the tensions between a storyteller and their critical audience.
In this case, Joe stands in for the director, fitting, of course, as Charlotte Gainsbourg has been cited as playing the role of Von Trier proxy before (in Antichrist, primarily, but also in Melancholia).  A step back from the on screen action reveals that many of the chapters tend to correspond directly to much of the director's work - via direct visual cues, thematic hints, settings, and onward down the line. The Dogme 95 movement is referenced, too, in young Joe's participation in a cultish group of young women who organize their trysts according to a manifesto (the primary rule of which asserts that they have sex without love).  So, the film positions itself as a conversation. On the surface it's a tale of one character's willing participation in a self-destructive compulsion.  Just below that, it's an exercise either in self-indulgence or self-criticism.  Joe, as a mouthpiece for Von Trier, centers our attention on just how much of his oeuvre finds itself obsessed with questions of power, of gender discrepancy, of misanthropy and human indecency.  Seligman's interest in her is, at first, curiously objective to the point of being near academic. He shows us how to interpret her "works" as expository, meaningful signposts while at the same time calling upon modes of thought that allow her to give name to her critics, to express that she feels judged, to lay claim to compulsions, her power, and to eventually step up and insist upon reclaiming the word "nymphomaniac."  It's important that she does so, of course, for Joe as Von Trier is not explicitly a sex addict. She is instead plagued by a restlessness, a nervous fervor, a desperate longing to fill or find meaning from the depths of a kind of lack.
Each of the chapters presents its own set of critical metafictional digressions from Seligman and Joe herself, and as the content of Joe's sexual history (and Von Trier's filmography) lends itself to darker and darker terrain, the conversation becomes all the more fascinating in its tangential profundity. Vol. II sees Joe experiment with sadomasochism in a way that marks a jarring shift in the film's tone, and serves as a prelude both to the character's deeper depressions and her more powerful moments as agent of her own becoming.  Her addictive submission to the character K. (Jamie Bell) precipitates the final break in her marriage to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), and the underlying gender politics of the situation are deftly, believably handled. We are made to understand that  Joe's submission still carries a type of power, that she is able to subtly alter the relationship between a supposedly dominant male and her own history as a free agent. In a direct visual callback to the opening sequence of Antichrist, the film's goals are crystallize.  Detractors who argued that Antichrist's violent meditation on grief hinged on an outwardly misogynistic, judgmental undercurrent of assigned guilt as the prioritizing of "She's" own sexual pleasure caused horrific things to happen around her (her child to tumble out a window, namely), find that sight gag visually doubled here and then comically frustrated. The reason is obvious: because Joe's compulsions are not harbingers of doom, because the film wants her to hold that power, because the film wants to say something about guilt (in a largely secular world) and comes down, firmly, on Joe's side.  
In those travels, of course, Joe's nymphomania is complicated further by moral/ethical questions outside of the realm of the sexual and what she's free to do with her own person. As she later finds herself without the ability to orgasm and, generally, avoiding intercourse, her struggle with finding a place twists her character in more traditionally aggressive directions.  Joe sees herself as a kind of pariah, is marked by her own self-loathing and pain (this is, after all, the closing section of the Depression Trilogy) even as the film suggests that she shouldn't be.  The internal struggle is given voice in the relaying of the story, but also significantly in the work of both actresses playing Joe. From out of this struggle, though, we arrive at the most upsetting moment of the film and the one many have expressed an extreme hatred for: the final scene.  Beware, reader, for there are spoilers ahead.

At just the moment of resolution, when it seems like Joe's Scheherazade has exhausted her tale and come to a moment of personal revelation, of peace, Seligman disrupts this in an intrusive, truly disturbing way.  The scene is shocking in part because it's disappointing to watch a character we'd grown to trust attempt something unspeakable but also because it feels like a betrayal to the viewer, a trolling by Von Trier, and the ultimate in downer, nihilistic conclusions.  My theater crowd reacted poorly to this in the moments following, and the reactions ran the gamut between rage and utter disgust.  We picked at the scene relentlessly in the hours following, and though I hated it then I've come around to its purpose and would dare to suggest that what it does is something quite interesting.  In a film loaded with every possible flavor of sex, in which the protagonist samples them all, she is also the one that sanctions the acts, that gives consent or uses her body her way. The attempted rape of the final moments is a betrayal, and one that reads like one to the audience because we are made to understand the massive tonal difference between Joe's sexual history and Seligman's violation.  In this way, the film again reminds us not only that it sides with Joe's freedom, but also brings the audience fully to side and identify with Joe.  Female, male, it doesn't matter: in this moment everyone understands precisely what the stakes are, precisely what the difference is, and gets hit in the gut with a reminder that there are too many people out there, too many dudes, who would try to pass off the act in the name of "well, you've done it so many times before."  That we hear Joe get up, shoot to kill, and flee the scene (in the darkness just before the credits) is both a reclamation/restatement of her own agency, but also a devastating reminder of how god awful the world is: she is given no peace, she cannot trust Seligman, he has forced her now not only to retreat further into her self-loathing, but to have to do so as a criminal (and surely, yes, there's something that can be said on the reversal of penetration in that moment).  This is always Von Trier's m.o.. In this case, though, it's an effective, troubling reflection on the state of our society as well as, of course, a curious inversion on the way one's stories or words can be twisted towards self-serving and duplicitous purposes by another. It's crushing in Joe's world, telling in Von Trier's. Neither can get any peace, and the cycle continues.

4 comments:

  1. I should note, there's so much to talk about in relation to this film that this barely scratches the surface. There are so many bizarre scenes and chapters that could be broken down in endless ways, and looking at them in terms of the director's career is the most formalist of those. Within that, though, there are still questions. It's still its own narrative, for example, and not everything can be directly matched up with another incident or film. Still, a lot can, and if anyone has thoughts on how some of those echoes are working at various points within the film, I'd love to read them. I'm particularly curious about how people see the Mrs. H scene (which is incredible) working with this reading....

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  2. Honestly, in today's world, I think it is very, very odd that anyone gives anyone else shit for liking a film or a particular filmmaker. It is literally beyond my understanding of thinking that people give you flak for liking Lars von Trier. I mean, really... we like what (and who) we like. Why give someone crap about it?

    Sorry, just blows my mind. Anyway, I loved your insightful analysis on the film. I particularly enjoyed what you had to say about the film's ending, which was... wow. Just, wow.

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    1. Man, we're living in different worlds, I guess. I get shit for liking Von Trier from all sides. Part of it definitely stems from how deeply entrenched I am in academia (PhD, yo), where he's admired, but taken to task for all manner of things (I noted in a professor's presence that I was considering writing a paper on genre aesthetics and Antichrist as was told, flatly, that "you shouldn't do that, he's terrible" like I'd be somehow encouraging him...), but my friends outside of academia tend not to like him either sometimes because he's pretentious or irritating or runs his mouth. I dunno, man, in my world everyone's a critic and we've had some pretty serious bar arguments on artistic merit. Then again, most people I know will respond with a "You LIKED that, who ARE you?" to hearing you're into anything they haven't considered interesting (bands, songs, superhero movies, tv shows, books, you name it...). In my experience of the world, taste in pop culture has become wrapped up with some sense of identity, the what you condone or condemn and why.

      It seems weirder to me, though, that you haven't experienced this. I feel like the whole internet kind of exists to either give shit for or build little palaces that validate the liking of something. I mean, the today's world you're in sounds pretty great. I'd move there, but I think I'd be out of a job...

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    2. Ha, well, here's the thing: I don't tolerate people telling me what I shouldn’t like. Friends chatting it up in a bar, telling each other what is shit and what's not - that's all good, absolutely. But if, for instance, a professor said that to me, I would've returned with, "What the hell do you care?" or something to that effect. But I (can) have a big mouth, which has gotten me into trouble plenty.

      What I meant in my initial comment is that it seems so reductive to take people to task for actually liking something. I met a guy the other day who genuinely, legitimately thought Transformers 3 was one of the best films of the past 5 years. I told him I disagreed, but I wouldn't dare tell him he was wrong. I mean, that is that dude's opinion, and in his world, it's a valid one. (I did ask him how many new movies he has seen in the past 5 years, and he said, "A lot, like 30." So there's that.)

      I didn’t mean to imply that I’ve NEVER experienced this type of stuff, I just don’t put up with it anymore. I love to talk with people about the films they hate, and why. And maybe at the end of that discussion, they can see the film in a new light. But trying to convince someone that a movie (or filmmaker) they actually like is crap… what’s the point?

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