Thursday 20 March 2014

NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 1 and NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 2 - Review By Greg Klymkiw - ***** for new Lars von Trier

Young Joe (Stacy Martin) prefers her cream
STRAIGHT UP. Coffee not necessary.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (2014) Dir. Lars von Trier *****
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mia Goth, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The dark is a scary place. For Lars von Trier, it seems to be the only place, but no matter how deeply pitched the black gets, he takes us to places many never want to go, but he does it with the aplomb of a master showman and as such, delivers movies that provoke, annoy, anger and almost always, entertain. Nymphomaniac is nothing, if not an all-out dazzler of a picture. Just don't take your granny to see it.

The picture had me hooked from its opening frames - which, of course, are black with the sound of water splashing. Or is it rain? Or is it someone taking a piss? I have images of an appetizer comprising a golden shower scene - after all, it's Lars von Trier and the movie is called Nymphomaniac. 'Twas, I believe, a reasonable expectation. But no, it's rain spattering onto metal, brick and cement, whilst water forms puddles and/or rushes into drains as the camera now reveals a grungy, dark back alley. In no time, the camera's eye moves towards a literal patch of dark in the wall of an old building. Once we're completely enveloped in the black, von Trier slams us in the face with a series of powerful images and splits our ear drums with the pounding, blistering Rammstein song "Führe Mich" ("Lead Me"). He chooses to cut into the song at the 10-second mark and I have to admit, it jolted me with all the force of any great cinematic shock cut.

As Rammstein slashes our oh-so delicate tympanic membranes to shreds, we're introduced to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) lying on the wet pavement, bruised, bleeding and clearly a victim of a severe beating. And hell, we'll accept that Von Trier has her positioned like Christ on the Cross because, well, it's a movie by Lars von Trier. We're also introduced to the imposing, hulking Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) as he walks with the determination of a hit man on his way to dispatch his quarry, but is in fact, on his way to a little Kosher convenience store (in an alleyway, no less, or wherever the fuck we are). With a full grocery sack, he discovers the pulverized waif-like Joe on the wet cement. She doesn't want an ambulance or the police. Seligman suggests she come back to his place for a cup of tea.


Once snuggled in Seligman's guest bed, with tea ('natch), Joe declares that she's a nymphomaniac and as such, is little more than filth. Seligman, a paternal academic, dotes on her and tut-tuts her self-hatred. Joe opens up to our lanky, Swedish Mr. Chips and tells him her life story, as if to support her inner loathing of everything she is. And it's definitely a case of "is", for it didn't take her a lifetime to discover her nymphomania, but that she discovered her "cunt" and its hold over her at age two. With cunt in hand, as it were, Joe takes Seligman through her childhood, adolescence and adulthood of debauchery.

Oh, and what debauchery, what degradation, what defilement. With a combination of real, digital and prosthetic cocks, cunts and assholes, Von Trier doesn't at all hold back on the sexual activity. You name it, you'll probably see it all here. However, there's nothing clinically dull in the hardcore action as you might find in your regular, good old fashioned, garden-variety XXX-picture. The onscreen sex is not only fun to watch, but Von Trier tears a few pages out of the rule books of great genre directors and makes damn sure that every beat of onscreen "action" is rooted (so to speak) in narrative thrust (as it were).

For example, what so many filmmakers who direct action, suspense or horror films don't understand is that the staging and choreography of their thrill-inducing set-pieces must always be rooted in narrative. It's not enough to turn said set pieces into roller coaster rides, and in most cases these days, set pieces that are poorly directed and edited for ADHD-challenged viewers to boot. In fact, what most contemporary filmmakers don’t seem to get is that set pieces must not stop the movie dead in its tracks nor inversely should non-set-pieces of pure narrative feel like a by-rote chore to get through twixt the action.

Great movies, great filmmakers realize that every element is a means to an end. Take any great set piece of action - let's use Sam Peckinpah's final twenty-minute slaughterhouse in The Wild Bunch as a case in point; not one shot, not one cut, not one excruciating slow-motion blood ballet is wasted, nor is it ever there simply for effect. Every element is working in tandem to enhance the thematic resonance, the complexity of character, the reflection of a time and place and, most importantly, the picture's narrative.

Von Trier handles his sex scenes in exactly the same fashion. There is, unlike pure hardcore porn, nothing on display for sheer masturbation-inducing prurience, BUT it is titillating, entertaining and always rooted in narrative, theme and character.

If anything, it's a lot of fun.

Somehow, the more degrading Joe's need to debase herself gets, we're rooting big-time for her to go as far as she needs to go in order to feel something down below. That's okay, though. This is her choice or, at least, the choice Von Trier chooses to give her. There's no morose, humourless, dullsville jack-hammering a la Steve McQueen in his precious toe-dip into sexual addiction Shame.

Besides, shame is just shame for McQueen, but for Von Trier, shame is part of the thrill for both Joe and the audience. It's kind of like the Guy Maddin credo (especially in the film he directed and co-wrote with George Toles, Careful) wherein the closet equals repression which equals shame, but sometimes it's the closet, the repression and the shame - O! THE GLORIOUS SHAME! - that's, well, pretty electrifying, thrilling, dangerously delightful and, if truth really be told, boner-and-wet-pussy-inducing. This is, I think, the thing that spurs Joe's character on and as an audience, it radiates so gloriously that we're carried along her yellow-brick road of need - to FEEL SOMETHING.

The primary element that keeps Nymphomaniac such a joyous and compelling experience is its structure or rather, its coat-hanger. The manner in which Joe's story is told is rooted in the near omnibus style we've occasionally experienced in films like Julien Duvivier's Tales of Manhattan, but best exemplified in the classic Ealing horror film Dead of Night (and a few subsequent 70s offerings from Amicus inspired by E.C. Comics, most notably Tales From the Crypt). For an omnibus-styled film to work best, the thread that hangs everything together is the reason for several different stories to be told and is, in fact, a wrap-around story that provides a story unto itself as well as the final kicker.

Often this style of film is rooted in some literary source, or inspired by the notion of literature. It's the latter that Von Trier has chosen and, in fact, rather enjoys implementing in many of his films. Here though, it works beautifully for several reasons.

The movie is a sprawling epic of fucking. This is fine by me. It's so sprawling that, Von Trier's original 5½ hour cut can't even be seen theatrically - at least not for now. The film is being released in two halves - each carrying a separate admission tag. Von Trier felt obligated to his investors to provide a product that had as much chance to generate a myriad of revenue streams. What we have are two parts that together do not equal 5½ hours. The first half is 118 minutes and the second 123 minutes. We're talking four hours here and they both include lengthy end-title credit sequences. Each part carries a disclaimer that the film doesn't represent Von Trier's final vision, but that he has indeed delivered his blessing whilst not actively participating in this shorter version.

Don't worry, though, Nymphomaniac is ALL VON TRIER ALL THE TIME!!!

Each half is considered a "volume" and within each volume there are 4 stories - totalling 8 official tales over the course of both volumes, but still including a myriad of delightful sidebar meanderings and, of course, the aforementioned wrap-around story. I never once felt the film I saw was incomplete and was thoroughly satisfied. That said, I did want more. I wanted to stay in the cinema much longer and could have practically set up house there. This, however, is the ultimate satisfaction - when I leave a movie wanting more. (I also know we'll eventually get it.) Besides, I hate going to a great restaurant and leaving the place wanting to spew vomit and shit a la Terry Jones in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and such is the case with genuinely great pictures like this. I'm not leaving dissatisfied, but wanting more. My first thought after my inaugural taste was how much I wanted to see the movie - in its current state, even - again and again.

This, for me, is what makes a great picture. (And yes, a second helping was utterly transplendent.)

The wraparound story is, finally, a genuine delight. The conversation between Joe and Seligman is completely nutty. Joe admonishes herself, Seligman tries to appease her with hilarious intellectualizations, which she sometimes accepts and, as is her wont, sometimes rejects. However, the conversations always contribute elements that take us into the next story and, importantly, up the ante each time on the degradation-meter. That the conversations themselves involve fly-fishing, Orthodox Iconography, the fucking Fibonacci Sequence and assorted other topics requiring - NAE! DEMANDING! - rumination, is a constant source of pure euphoria.

The story Joe provides us is always mediated through her perspective, but we always sense a playful quality wherein she picks and chooses elements - sometimes, not always - based on her whims as a storyteller, her opportunity to have an avid listener and, of course, the aforementioned flights of fancy and philosophy imparted by the listener.

Von Trier has populated his movie with a huge cast of stars and name actors. I can't think of a single performance that's any less than outstanding, but in addition to the stalwart presence of Von Trier regulars Gainsbourgh and Skarsgård there are several notable renderings which stand out.

Christian Slater is surprisingly wonderful as Joe's loving, loyal father. This is not only a tremendously moving performance, but it provides the movie's only layer of what seems like genuine love and certainly not drenched in sex - at least not between the two characters. There is, for me, though, an element perfectly in keeping with the film's relentless focus on sex and it makes a fair bit of narrative sense. Joe's Dad is not only an all-out tree-aficionado (he's especially fond of the Ash), he's a lover of trees, he hugs them, seeks them out in any way he can, imparts his thoughts to his daughter about said leafy, tall, knobby trunks jutting ever-so erectly into the awaiting cunt of Heaven itself and yes, like Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon, he even talks to the trees. Unlike Terence Malick's ludicrous The Tree of Life, though, Christian Slater's obsession with trees is not so much preciously spiritual, but ultimately borders on being fetishistic.

A tree fetish? Hey, why not? It's a Lars von Trier picture.

"Don't call me Billy Elliot ever again!"
Another performance in Nymphomaniac that I hope to cherish until I'm six feet under is served up by none other than Jamie Bell.

What his character does to Joe is relentlessly, endlessly shocking, brutal, repulsive and, for some, downright reprehensible. His frosty demeanour is at once scary, but it's also kind of sexy and, in fact, it delivers an element of connection between Joe and another male character not paralleled by any other relationship in the movie.

I also have to admit it's a few wheelbarrows full o' fun seeing the title star of the utterly sickening Billy Elliot, all grown up and administering often unbearable physical pain and torture.

"Look, Billy, I just want you to wear a tutu."
There will, no doubt, be a whack of humourless, pole-up-the-butt namby-pamby types who ask, "How dare Lars Von Trier tell us a story about female sexuality from a female perspective? What in the hell would he know about it?"

Grab a brain, people. There isn't a single character in this movie - man, woman or child - who, in some fashion doesn't represent shards of Von Trier himself. He's crazy, nasty and ugly, but he's a great director and so much of what drives his pictures are his own obsessions. In Nymphomaniac he creates a world unto itself, but within that world, the characters seem true to the film and though I know Von Trier is barfing up a whole mess of his own viscous fluids, he does so with style, wit and intelligence.

Who knows? I kept thinking that Joe is Von Trier. After all, he gives her character's name the male spelling and it's hard not to acknowledge that Charlotte Gainsbourg (who I find really sexy) has that thin, almost teenage-boy body to add a touch of androgynous ambiguity to the proceedings. The bottom line is that he puts Joe through the sort of wringer one suspects Lars puts himself through every single moment of his life.

Finally, though, much as I love cinema more than life itself, movies these days often render me numb. Not so with Von Trier. Like a mere handful of other great living directors, he's happy to smash me in the teeth with a baseball bat, but he does it in perfect rhythm and at always the right pitch so that I keep wanting him to just bring it on and on and on.

Lay it on me, Lars.

Hit me with your best shots, motherfucker.

"Nymphomaniac Vol. 1" and "Nymphomaniac Vol. 2" are in theatrical release via Mongrel Media and are currently playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. I urge all Canadians who care about cinema to hop on a plane, train, bus or in an automobile and hightail it to Hogtown. There is no better venue in the entire Dominion of Canada to see this movie. For further information, visit the TIFF website HERE and now and order up your tickets.

Here's a whack of Lars von Trier movies and a few others you might wish to stock up on. If so, please buy them by clicking on the links below and, in so doing, assist in the maintenance of The Film Corner. In my humble opinion, there isn't a single title here you shouldn't own. So if you don't, get buying, eh.