Saturday, May 10, 2014

Unhappy Ending: NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL. II


Lars von Trier films inevitably conclude with pain, punishment, and hard-fought cynical enlightenment. In his best films, there can be a sort of ecstatic transcendence. Melancholia watches nothing less than the end of the world in its final images and finds in it sweet release. His Nymphomaniac reaches the end of its four hours and finds a shot in the dark, a forceful and dark death for what had started as a glimmer of kindness Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) had been able to find. In Vol. I, there was much humor and a sense of wry cinematic experimentation. As Joe told her life story to Seligman (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd), the kind older gentleman who found her beaten up in the alley next to his apartment, she seemed to be testing him, shaping her stories to get a response. And so was Von Trier, throwing stock footage, shifting aspect ratios, music both classical and rock, untranslated foreign languages, and a scattered chronology at the audience. It’s an excitable piece of punk juvenile fantasizing and frustrated philosophizing, a mix of goading hilarity and sharp castigation. In Vol. II, the darkness encroaches and the fun starts to fade.

Vol. II continues the teasing nature of its narrative, growing meta as Joe continues to recount her life of sexual and romantic entanglements and Seligman susses out metaphor and allegory, giving impromptu mini-lectures on a variety of subjects. After one such moment, Joe says to him, “I think this was one of your weakest digressions.” He later returns the favor, saying after one of her more disconnected memories, “What just happened? I didn’t get that.” They’re alternately the audience surrogate, commenting on the episodic, discursive nature of the long and winding film as it enters its final hours. It’s a film that’s teasing, generally around the question of how much it will show us, either explicit or coy, sometimes in the same sequence. Take a C-section, shown almost totally obscured visually by being shot in a reflection of shiny metal in the operating room, but presented with foley work so squishy it’s as if we saw it all.

The movie sets up all kinds of dichotomies: good/bad, suffering/happiness, pain/pleasure, literal/abstract, physical/cerebral, emotional/biological. It then methodically blurs the boundaries, drawing stark contrasts and then narrowing the gap until we have to ask ourselves what those differences actually are. With subject matter so explicit, the film could easily grow exploitative and cheap. It doesn't, not quite, a testament to the strength of the acting and the direction. But over the final two hours of this film what was teasing, exciting, and interesting grows dark, leaden, and empty. The controlled mess veers out of control as surface inappropriateness becomes deeper ugliness, drawing unflattering connections between moral judgments and moral lapses.

What is Von Trier saying here? In Vol. I, libertine expressiveness was refreshingly free of overt heavy-handed judgment. If anything, Seligman’s constant reassurances that Joe hadn’t behaved as badly as she feared provided nice balance to her apparent self-loathing. But by the end of Vol. II he tells her, “You wanted more from life than was good for you.” Leading up to that line, we hear about her experimentations with foreigners (Kookie and Papou), a professional sadist (Jamie Bell), and a young woman (Mia Goth). She becomes a shady debt collector for a sketchy man (Willem Dafoe). She’s chasing thrills, trying to feel something now that she so thoroughly conquered the art of simple pleasure. The movie pities her, but seems to think she in some way invites punishment. Rattled by her loss of desire, she went looking for dangers to get it back.

Narratively, stylistically, and thematically, Vol. II picks up right where Vol. I left off. It doesn’t skip a beat. No surprise there. It’s one whole movie split into two parts. The cleaving has left it clear that the first half is far more interesting and enjoyable than the second. You know how sometimes a critic will say that a movie is pretty great only if you leave halfway through and don’t learn otherwise? Releasing this four-hour-plus Nymphomaniac in two two-hour parts makes that easier. It starts out a confident narrative of empowerment and the complications thereof and ends up a cynical chastisement, coldly putting Joe in her place, whatever that means. As a whole, the film is as prickly, exciting, upsetting, contradictory, and compelling as anything Lars von Trier has made, worth grappling with, even if it doesn’t come together in the end.

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