NYMPHOMANIAC

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By R. David

Viewed April 9, 2014

Taken as one piece, Lars Von Trier’s two “Nymphomaniac” films – “Volume 1” and “Volume 2”, which I am reviewing together as its intended whole – is a difficult movie to review.  Fitting, I suppose since Von Trier as a director who delights in polarizing audiences.  His films are almost always incendiary and controversial.  Critically speaking, this is what makes them exciting.  You want filmmakers to be bold, unapologetic and challenge genre conventions.  However, ideally they will also find ways to engage their audience rather than alienate them, and win-over skeptics rather than be content to simply speak to their cult fan base each time out.  Von Trier lacks nothing where gusto is concerned, but he seems either frustratingly unwilling or unable to break his own, now-obvious mold. 

“Nymphomaniac” is a perfect example of this dichotomy.  On one hand, it’s fascinating.  The film is by turns funny and brutal, sympathetic and disturbing.  It’s that blending of emotional responses which are at tonal odds that that lends the film a complex and compelling narrative structure.  The film is essentially a series of flashbacks recounting the sexual exploits of a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Von Trier’s go-to lead actress).  She is found beaten in an alley by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who comes to her rescue.  Joe claims it is her insatiable sexual appetite that has led her to this place.  She tells Seligman her story, explaining she has been obsessed with sex nearly all of her life.  We see her as a curious little girl, a precocious teen, her earliest sexual experiences, including the disappointments and abuse that shape her understanding of what sex is.  There isn’t much shared about her upbringing or home life, other than the fact that she loved her father (played by Christian Slater) and resented her brash mother (Connie Nielsen), but her sexual awareness and eventual preoccupation stems from such a young age and seemingly organic place, Von Trier clearly means to make no excuse for her nymphomania.  It just simply is.  As a teen Joe is played with just the right amount of aloofness by Stacy Martin, who seems to only come truly alive during her sexual encounters.  Point taken.  It is as a young adult when she first meets the closest thing she ever has to a true love in Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), whom she later marries and has a child with; but her sexual addiction always threatens to derail everything good in her life.  We see her lose jobs, ruin marriages, break hearts, attempt treatment; it’s all for naught.  Von Trier drives home the point that nymphomania is an addiction or neurological disorder like any other, unable to be easily stifled.

Most of this makes up the first half of “Nymphomaniac” (“Volume 1”).  It is in the second half where any levity Von Trier was allowing is stifled and we move on to the true dark side of Joe’s obsession.  Like an addict always trying to get higher, she moves on to punishing kink to feed her addiction, and the toll her unquenchable sexual appetite has taken on her personal life leads her to crime, cruelty and murder.  It is also in the film’s second half where Von Trier shows his full hand and reveals “Nymphomaniac” to be as much a commentary on sexual politics and gender roles as a singular character study.  As Joe recounts her exploits to Seligman, she begins to question if her life would be in such dire straits if she were a man with the same urges (though Von Trier doesn’t exactly portray any of the sex-obsessed man she meets as any happier or healthier).

Saying all this, I realize how ambitious and interesting “Nymphomaniac” sounds.  And, indeed, it is both of those things.  But it is also obvious, ponderous and – this might go without saying – overlong.  As no doubt intended, the film’s sex is almost never sexy, but rather almost always uncomfortable, ranging from merely awkward to downright ugly to terrifying.  Anyone watching this film for titillation purposes probably deserves to be shocked and appalled, but Von Trier seems almost perversely eager to disgust.  The actors range from shrill and over the top (Uma Thurman as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s conquests), laughably earnest (LaBeouf), or frustratingly opaque (almost everyone else).  The movie almost doesn’t feel like it takes place in the real world, or at least not present day.  At times I forgot I was watching a contemporary film and assumed I was watching a period piece and would catch myself thinking, “maybe things were different ‘back then’”.  The world Joe lives in and the people she interacts with feel similarly inorganic.  Nothing about this movie, the locations, or the characters feels the least bit organic or indicative of the 21st century.  The film and the performances all have this aloof, alternate reality vibe that makes it hard to fully invest in or identify with Joe and her plight.  Maybe some of this has to do with the film’s budget, maybe it’s intentional on Von Trier’s part; but only Gainsbourg is convincing as a complex, emotional being.  Everyone and everything else seems to just kind of orbit around her in some alternate reality.

I’m sure there’s someone out there ready to argue with me that that was the point and Von Trier’s intent.  Perhaps.  But that wouldn’t make this exercise any more coherent or, frankly, necessary.  This is one of those movies (or two movies) where you look back after nearly four hours and realize you aren’t coming away with anything more than when you went in, and certainly nothing that couldn’t have been covered in half the time.

As it is, Von Trier’s thesis is strong and his ideas are ambitious.  And Gainsbourg’s bravery and contributions to this project can’t be overstated.  But “Nymphomaniac” never grabs the viewer the way it should; and worse yet, fails to justify putting audiences through four hours of sexual cruelty and awful behavior.  The perverse notion that Von Trier is smirking proudly at that doesn’t help either.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

ENEMY

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By R. David

Viewed April 9th, 2014

Revered in some circles, but met with “WTF” disdain in others, “Enemy”  is the strange arthouse thriller director Denis Villaneuve and star Jake Gyllenhaal made just before the two paired-up for last year’s excellent kidnap drama “Prisoners”.  Full disclosure right at the top: I’m in the later camp.  Not because “Enemy” is nontraditional, strange, or a complete mindfuck – no, I enjoy all of those things in a movie.  But like any other genre of  film, those things all need to be done right.  There has to be a point, and all the weirdness should be in service of a narrative that holds up under scrutiny or offers audiences something to hang it all on.  Otherwise it’s just a façade.  A sheep in wolf’s clothing.  Something purporting to be so much more than it is – than it needs to explain – but not having a clue what all that is.  No, a movie isn’t bad simply because it is different, weird or doesn’t provide the audience with answers.  But it is not automatically good because of any of those things either.

Things start off intriguingly enough in “Enemy”, with Jake Gyllenhaal’s dour college professor discovering a bit-part actor in a movie who looks exactly like him.  He seeks the actor out, and sure enough, the guy is his total doppelganger.  They even have identical voices and scars.  Creepy for sure.  Things only get more sordid when both men begin trying destroying each other’s romantic lives, with actor Gyllenhaal setting his sights on teacher Gyllenhaal’ s girlfriend, and the teacher returning the favor by get close to the actor’s wife. 

But what the hell’s going on here?  Good question.

Right off the bat, teacher Gyllenhaal is so morose and actor Gyllenhaal seems so inherently fiendish that there is never a moment of true wonderment between the two men.  Sure they seem super creeped-out by what they have just discovered, but the teacher seems to use it as an excuse to slip further into depressed obsessiveness, and the actor goes off the deep end so quickly, you’re left to wonder if the film is trying to convey he’s always been the nasty sort or if this whole situation has brought something out of him he never knew was there.

It’s one of “Enemy’s” fatal flaws that it either has no interest in exploring these things, or it is simply too concerned with keeping up this front of the mysterious, figure-it-out-yourself mind-bender that it purposely omits any character introspection.  Similarly, the film – and the characters – is almost defiantly humorless about this situation.  There isn’t one moment where the two men share a smile or joke about this situation.  They become adversaries the minute they discover the other exists.  Why, we are only left to ponder and assume.  Is the idea that they are both so screwed up discovering something like this just drives them deeper into their own psychosis?  Do two of these guys even exist, or is the one just a figment of the other’s screwed-up mind?  Things happen in the film where each man interacts with people in the other man’s life, suggesting they both indeed exist, but movies like this always conclude  with that pivotal scene explaining how, “you know all that stuff you thought proved they couldn’t be the same person?  You’re wrong!”

Not “Enemy” though.  It isn’t telling.  But don’t think that means it skips the “gotcha!” ending.  Oh no.  It’s present and accounted for; but like everything else here, it makes no sense and explains absolutely nothing… Or maybe it explains everything.  Who knows?  There are theories out there, and of course the filmmakers have taken the tactic of “it’s up for interpretation, can mean something different to everyone”.  Gee, thanks.  Again, I don’t need or even want everything explained to me in a movie – especially trippy little thrillers like this.  But I need to be able to follow it to the degree that I feel like I have an investment in the characters, their motivations and the consequences of their actions and not feel as though I’m just watching some pretentious director’s abstract jerk-off fest.

You don’t have to completely understand a film to enjoy it.  Plenty of movies are bizarre or frustratingly impenetrable, but the difference is the good ones offer up fascinating scenarios and characters, or they throw the audience enough of bone as to at the very least bring them into the story.  “Enemy” has none of this.  It’s dank to look at, unpleasant to watch, has a story that constantly keeps the viewer at arm’s length, despite a set-up that will have most wanting to follow it, which is even more perverse in a sense. The movie forces you to fight to get close to it and offers no reward for the trouble, unless you consider a haunting sight gag proper pay off for your investment.  Slugging through “Enemy”, trust me, it’s not.

1 Star (Out of 4)

THE GRAND PIANO

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By R. David

Viewed April 5th, 2014

Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is a world-renowned concert pianist who found himself disgraced when he attempted to play the “the most difficult piano piece in the world”, “La Cinquette”, written by his late mentor, Patrick Godureaux, and failed humiliatingly.  Five years later, he has been lured out of self-imposed exile to perform a tribute concert for Godureaux. 

Selznick is already a nervous wreck – despite his obvious staggering talent at the keyboard and the unwavering support of his beautiful movie-star wife (Kerry Bishé) – when, a few notes into his performance, he turns the page of his sheet music to reveal a note scrawled in red ink: “PLAY ONE WRONG NOTE AND YOU DIE!”  The red dot of a laser sight on his chest lets him know this is not a joke.  Via an earpiece stashed at the piano, Selznick is able to communicate with his assailant who informs him he wants him to not only play a flawless concert, but again attempt “La Cinquette” – this time with no mistakes – or he and his wife will be killed.

The fun of movies like “Grand Piano” is two-fold.  Done correctly, these films should be a guessing for the audience as to who the villain is and what their motivations might be.  Could this be someone going to great extremes to restore his Selznick’s confidence?  Could it be Godureaux, not actually dead, attempting to do the same; or worse yet punish him for botching his works?  A jaded fan?  Or is it all in his head?  Secondly, these thrillers also live and die by how cleverly the protagonist finds these answers and navigates his predicament.  Trapping the hero at a piano in front a hundred-plus observers gives Selznick little wiggle room and ups the suspense considerably.

Unfortunately, “Grand Piano” is lax on both fronts.  There is more than one moment where Selznick leaves his piano.  Presumably these are points in the piece where he is not required to play, but more than one of these instances feels like a cheat on the part of the filmmakers because they know it is almost impossible to have their protagonist discover/accomplish much from a piano bench (fair enough, but don’t make that movie then), never mind the fact that allowing it undermines the authority and threat of the bad guy.  And when the would-be killer’s identity and motivations are revealed, they are far less interesting than what most audience members have already likely concocted in their own minds.

Director Eugenio Mira demonstrates considerable skill at creating atmosphere, deftly building tension and generating action and suspense where there otherwise isn’t any.  Credit for this must go to Wood as well.  Feverishly banging away on his keyboard, looking like a convincing concert pianist while still maintaining and convey an air of dread and concern to the audience; it’s another impressive, all-in performance from this underrated actor. 

But ultimately, “Grand Piano” just doesn’t have enough up its sleeve to reward those who might get caught up in its “’Speed’ On a Piano!” concept.  It’s as if everyone involved was so taken by the hook that no one bothered to question the legitimacy of the script or make any effort to punch it up where needed.  In addition to his clearly talented eye, Mira is also smart enough to keep the film rolling briskly along, wrapping things up in just over 80 minutes.  It’s hard to hate a tight, stylish little thriller with good performances and a bravura concept.  But this is another case where the laziness of the script and lack of any truly original inspiration sabotages the film’s quality elements.

2½ Stars (Out of 4)