Sex and the silly
And the Von Trier Flying Circus continues on its merry rounds, this time with Mr. Von Trier taking on one of his favorite subjects: self-humiliation.
Oh, you thought I was going to say 'sex?' Hah--I wish. More on that later.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 is the first half of a four-hour work, this part devoted to setting up the framework: badly beaten Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is picked up by Good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), who for his kindness is allowed to listen to her raunchy adventures as a nubile youth (played with vampiric intensity by Stacey Martin). Along the way Seligman compares Joe's seduction techniques to fly fishing, her true love Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) to a cantus firmus in the polyphonic symphony of her life; along the way Joe beds hordes of men, at one point giving us an extensive picture catalog of all the penises--long or short, dark or pale, circumcised or foreskinned--that have penetrated her, fore and aft and sideways, throughout her sexual career.
The tone is somewhere between a Victorian erotic novel and a Ron Jeremy porn flick, a mix of the dreamily sensual and vulgarly direct (that description may not be 100% accurate--a genuine Victorian novel would have considerably more whipping (Vol. 2, maybe?)). The fable told by a sensual protagonist goes back at least as far as De Sade's Justine or his masterpiece 120 Days of Sodom, and right there you see a difference: De Sade's narrator in the former is a youthful innocent in the process of being corrupted, in the latter are hedonists attempting to corrupt a herd of youthful innocents. Joe's a wanderer of sorts but her travels and eventual transformation generate very little friction; she basically slides into her groove with remarkably little drama and even less fuss (well, a brief discussion of the Fibonacci numbers 3 and 5), riding to town on an endless series of Toms, Dicks and Harrys with nary a tube of Vaseline in sight (just a quick lick of the fingers, applied to the right orifice).
It's amazing how fast this gets old, without the frisson of guilt or the concept of sin; when she confesses to having secreted lubricating fluids at the moment of a major character's death, Seligman promptly lectures her on the naturalness of the phenomenon. When she's confronted with one consequence of her actions--a visit from her lovers' wife (a dizzyingly distraught Uma Thurman) and family--the moment should be a chance for some emotional traction, only the dialogue is so laughably bad ("would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?"). Thurman plays the wife as a combination of sarcastic civility and barely checked rage, and the mix--as in most Von Trier movies--doesn't quite gel, doesn't quite sound like the words of an angry spouse trying to get some of her own back.
It's a consistent problem with Von Trier. He wants to provoke, but fails to do the necessary research to cause actual damage (Dogville should have been a powerful condemnation of the United States' puritanical hypocrisy only it becomes clear after sitting through the first hour that the director has never even set foot in the country); he wants to move us, but can't take the time and effort to escalate his heroines' suffering convincingly (in Breaking the Waves he jump-cuts from innocent Bess propositioning other men for sex to innocent Bess being stoned by children for propositioning other men for sex, without giving the town gossips enough time to do their work properly (do the kids have some kind of Sixth Sense for adultery?)).
Sometimes Von Trier commits both sins simultaneously--refusing to do the research and take the time and effort, in this case to properly chronicle Selma's downward spiral in Dancer in the Dark (the legal circumstances through which she forces her own conviction being so hilariously unlikely you have to be high on drugs to refrain from laughing, much less find her guilty).
Sometimes he's so caught up in the mechanics of his emotional effects--in Melancholia the exact shape and progression of his protagonists' depression, clearly meant to represent his own--that he takes for granted the world's literal end, a cataclysm which looks less like the actual astronomical event and more like its digitally enhanced Disney version, bright and colorful and easy to digest. Makes you want to ask: why bother ending the world if it's going to look so slapdash? Almost bad enough to drive one to melancholia.
Course I'm not 100% sure; haven't seen Vol. 2 yet. For all I know Von Trier recovers and turns this ponderous Skin Odyssey into a masterpiece. He's done it before, transformed an irritating turd into an emotionally shattering work of art (i.e. The Idiots, where the final scene either redeems the film or is the only redeeming moment in the film--can't quite decide which, and the fact that I can't is a source of much of its fascination). Based on his track record though and based on the trajectory this picture is presently taking--wouldn't hold my breath.
Next week: Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2
First published in Businessworld, 8.22.14