SHE’S A MANIAC
Main Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard
Director: Lars von Trier
I received a large envelope from Steven Spielberg’s office this morning, delivered by special courier. At last, I
thought, the contracts offering me the role of Maria in his remake of West Side Story. After all, what other glamorous star of stage and screen would have the box office draw of Vicki Lester. Imagine my shock when I found that the package contained a letter from his lawyers full of baseless accusations and innuendo of sexual improprieties on my part at my recent audition topped off with a restraining order barring me from his office complex or any set under his production company. I will admit that I turned on all of my charms for him and that my dress was a bit décolleté, but I assure everyone that I was completely professional at all times. I have contacted Fajer and Hellmann, my attorneys to answer these baseless accusations and, if necessary, countersue. Despite some rather nasty rumors, I have never turned to the casting couch to get ahead. Monroe Stahr did once make a highly improper suggestion to me when I met with him for the part of Selket in his spectacular Egyptian musical, A Horus Line; I left his office in a huff, clothing and dignity intact. I had the last laugh as I ended up landing the part anyway after Faye Greener sprained her ankle.
After that bit of bad news, it was necessary to do something wonderfully creative so Leah, my gal Friday got together and called up Diva Carin, who knows a thing or two about event planning and the three of us began working diligently on additional ideas for this military parade that’s supposed to be happening this fall. As we have a number of brightly colored uniforms, we decided that we needed to make sure all of our soldiers and sailors have complimentary skin tones for the right visual look. We’ve decided the best way to handle this is to make sure that the enlisted men chosen should have darker skin tones. Rank after rank of African Americans, Latin Americans, and Asian Americans, fully armed, should provide the perfect photo opportunities for the R and C group that’s sponsoring the whole thing. We all approved of the latest sketches from the house of Daniel James for the infantry uniforms – periwinkle blue with cerise trim and the most adorable canary yellow berets. We’re trying to decide now if they should be unisex or if the women should be given full power over their bodies by replacing shirts with bustiers.
As Normy wasn’t due home for hours and as the theme of the day seems to have been the power inherent in female sexuality, I decided to settle in for all four hours of cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier’s 2013 epic Nymphomaniac, released as two films – Volume 1 and Volume 2 – but which can be viewed together in a single marathon setting. I have never been a huge von Trier fan. I find him, despite his obvious talent, somewhat pedantic and pretentious. I do, however, admire him for his willingness to take on difficult and controversial subjects and he always seem to find quality actors, no matter how outrageous his plots and characters. Von Trier burst upon the international scene twenty some years ago with Breaking the Waves, a morality tale that made international stars out of Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard. One of its key themes is the rather brutish and animal nature that sexual acts can take when there is no love between the participants. He has returned to this time and again in his films and in some ways, Nymphomaniac is a culmination of all his ideas.
The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg (who previously starred for von Trier in Melancholia and Antichrist) as Joe, a woman on the cusp of middle age who has been beaten and left in an alley in an unnamed British city. She is found there by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), an asexual autodidact who takes her home, cleans her up, makes her tea, and asks how she came to be there. The vast majority of the movie then becomes Joe recounting her sexual history to Seligman, using various objects in the room and his interests (fly fishing, Fibonacci numbers, organ music), to spur on her memories of erotic exploits. She begins with her childhood adventures with her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and then on to her losing of her virginity to the older Jerome (Shia LeBoeuf) who reappears multiple times in her life. She explores casual intercourse, multiple partners, masochism with a professional dominator (Jamie Bell), a somewhat tortured relationship with her father (Christian Slater), criminality together with a sullen Willem Dafoe, and ultimately myriad wrong choices leads back to the alley, tragedy and we come full circle.
In many ways, Nymphomaniac is what I call a ‘why’ film. Why did someone decide to make it and for whom? It was not either a financial or critical success. The much-ballyhooed nudity and hard-core sex scenes (mainly Gainsbourg and LeBoeuf’s heads superimposed on the bodies of pornographic models) are neither interesting or titillating. The performances are at times interesting and at times simply dull. The most electric moment comes from Uma Thurman in a small role as the wife of one of Joe’s many lovers who has a combination breakdown and tirade when she confronts them, kids in tow. It’s in general, the one thing a film never should be, boring.
I think the film fails on von Trier’s ego. Von Trier the director refuses to edit down von Trier the writer into what might have been a nuanced look at female sexuality. If I am reading his intentions right, he is trying to deconstruct Western society’s condemnation of female sexual adventure by making the audience uncomfortable at her choices and behavior. He does this by having Joe (I doubt the masculine name is at all accidental) act out in ways that would not raise any comment if done by a male character. No action of Joe’s is really that outré if we were to consider her the opposite gender – in fact, I suspect a percentage of the male audience would applaud her for living out male fantasies if the whole thing had been gender swapped. There’s probably an interesting two-hour film trapped in the middle of von Trier’s wilder moments. (His original vision was longer still, but this cut is, to my knowledge, not available currently for viewing).
Nymphomaniac also suffers from a vacant hole in the center because of the inability of either Gainsbourg or Skarsgard to inject real life into the walking metaphors they’ve been asked to play. Their scenes together, which should crackle with electricity (think Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs), instead are more soporific than the complete works of Hegel. They’re both very talented actors. I think they’re done in by the direction. The supporting cast, on the other hand, as they generally have one or two scenes and then bop out of Joe’s life, are uniformly quite good. Uma Thurman, as mentioned above, is the stand out, but there is good work from Christian Slater and Jamie Bell. The one exception is Shia LeBoeuf, who despite having some nice musculature fully on display, simply has no charm and Joe’s constant attraction to him makes absolutely no sense. But then, I have never understood Mr. LeBoeuf’s career and his recent disappearance from film has been, in my opinion, a blessing for film goers the world over.
Ultimately, while the film raises interesting questions that it never gets around to answering, it’s a failure because it is far too much about far too little. Perhaps if it had been shot Dogme style…
Nymph fly. Bathroom floor sliding. Chocolate sweeties. Flowers at the door. Gratuitous African brother three way. Delirium tremens. Car burning. Child abandonment. Lack of secretarial skills. Not so surprise ending.
photo by Jasmin T