Friday, September 26, 2014

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before, Lav Diaz, 2014)


Once upon a time

Lav Diaz's last feature Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, the End of History, 2013) was uncharacteristic of him--the film was in color, involved several writers (Rody Vera, with story contributions by Michiko Yamamoto and Raymond Lee), and featured relatively brisk pacing. Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before, 2014) looks like a return to his habitual style with its black-and-white cinematography, its solo-written script, its more contemplative stride...but I submit it's actually a break from what he's done before.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, 2013)

Plenty uttered

Never mind that it's a comedy for adults, never mind that it's understated yet grounded in everyday upper middle class life (sure it's upper middle class--many of the houses onscreen could sell for over three hundred thousand, some considerably more, though James Gandolfini's Albert still wears a shabby gray shirt and eats heavily buttered popcorn out of a bucket, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Eva still ogles the inside of some of her richer clients' houses), never mind that director Nicole Holofcener seems less interested in the plot twist (Eva dates Albert, realizes one of her clients (Marianne, played with astringent insouciance by Catherine Keener) is Albert's ex-wife) than in the softpedal interaction between the two middle-aged lovers--if you must take away one thing from the film it's this: Gandolfini manages to make chubby sexy again.

Don't quite know if it's ever happened before (Robert Mitchum's gut is too intimidating to be called 'chubby;' does late Marlon Brando count?). Watching Gandolfini onscreen he comes across as quiet, shy (Tony Soprano shy?), but when occasion demands he delivers an assured comic patter that can believably charm a woman to bed, at least on second date. 

It's a small miracle in my book, and if I dwell on the subject at length you'll have to forgive me, it's also personal (check my pics on facebook if you're curious). Too many lean, buff protagonists in Hollywood movies, even when the movie is supposed to be a comedy--the default physique has long since worn its way past boring to eyepluckingly annoying. We Want Something Else--no, we want more of Something Else, preferably a size 46 and above.  

Gandolfini's isn't the protagonist here; we observe him mostly secondhand, but even thusly and with the least effort he spookily makes us understand the character, despite Albert's apparent air of wanting to keep people at arm's length. The man's been hurt once too often, usually by his wife, and especially on the subject of his girth; if he's a bit gingery about admitting another woman into his life, you understand--same time you understand that his social life being what it is, he's willing to risk pain to relieve the massive loneliness. Gandolfini makes us aware of this knife edge Albert  balances on, and why once the blade is upset he's not eager to climb back up again. 

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Albert is his dignity. He knows who he is, knows his value as a person, knows (even if unmentioned I'm dead certain he does) his weight down to the last ounce, how he looks with all that extra baggage hanging from his waist. He's not so much defiant towards a world that loves bulimic supermodels as he is self-contained, having achieved a pained independence--pure metal, any extraneous material burnt away in the crucible. And it's against his lonely isle of an existence that Eva's complicated life runs aground.

Albert's a piece of work (I say admiringly) but hardly the stuff of comedy, which leaves the meat and motor of the film to Louis-Dreyfus' Eva. If he entertains few illusions about himself Eva is nothing but; she's lucked into a good thing but given the opportunity takes advantage because (as she's forced to confess) "I was trying to protect myself." Only image I can come up with in response is someone running a siphon up from a septic tank into the hot bath she's enjoying--doesn't make a lot of sense, but people can't resist doing such things anyway. 

There are weaknesses to the film. Keener's Marianne is a cipher, a keen disappointment considering Keener usually plays the director's alter-ego (that role was handed to Louis-Dreyfus); Eva hogs the lion's share of self-destructive behavior, leaving little for Albert unless you count his overeating--I imagine in the perfect comedy there'd be plenty to go around. But it's difficult to see where Holofcener can go trying to present more sides to Marianne without weighing down the film or padding the running time, and Albert is such a comforting bear of a presence you love him anyway (of course a filmmaker really should really push limits, same as said filmmaker should also know when to stop; the key I suppose is knowing when to do one or the other...). 

Albert and Eva do have a delightful chemistry, and Holofcener's writing shows a knack for quietly quirky dialogue: Having inspected Albert's bathroom Eva notes:  

"You have, like, eighty million toothbrushes."

"I do?"

"Yeah."

"I only use one of them."

"Then why don't you just throw the other ones out?"

"I don't know. Because they're my friends?"

 Which I think sums up what Albert's all about--you got eighty million like him in your medicine cabinet and there's no reason in the world you would hang on to him, only he's a friend. 

First published in Businessworld, 9.11.14



Monday, September 15, 2014

Dr. Who series 8 (Deep Breath, Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood, Listen)


(WARNING: story lines and plot twists in Season 8 episodes discussed in detail)

Don't look now

but Steven Moffat seems to be regaining some of the creative juices he lost since his memorable start as head writer of the Fifth Series of Dr. Who.

Take Deep Breath: perhaps not as funny, but a darker, less frenetic season premiere than that first effort. Peter Capaldi as the Doctor babbles, but it's closer to the babble of a madman (a paranoid schizophrenic?) than ever before--Tennant mostly came off as a gregarious blabbermouth and Smith like an easily distracted child; Eccleston was a swaggeringly arrogant jerk, despite which he's my favorite from the new series. So far.

Reinforcing the 'madman' concept is the Doctor's tendency to see things from the strangest perspectives ("Who invented this room?" "Doctor, please, you have to lie down." "Doesn't make any sense--look, it's only got a bed there. Why is there only a bed in it?" "Because it's a bedroom."). Moffat is constantly trying to explore or redefine the meaning behind this or that detail in the Whovian mythology,* in this case the new series' tendency to use younger and younger actors (Madame Vestra on the Doctor: "I wear a veil as he wore a face. For the same reason." "For what reason?" "For the oldest reason there is for anything: to be accepted.").   

*Something he also does, to varying degrees of success, with Sherlock Holmes, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Speaking of veils, Smith's Doctor wore the face of a young man, through which cracks peek the visage of an older being. It's the opposite with Capaldi's Doctor: the face of an old man through which peeks the eyes of a younger, more immature, perhaps more helpless child.

Arguably the most unsettling--and here you see Moffat's eagerness to shake things up--aspect of this Doctor is his bleaker, more calculating sensibility: he will pause for a moment to consider abandoning his companion (Jenna Colman as Clara Oswald) behind but only for a moment: if logic (or his idea of it) dictates, he will leave. Clara's panic seems genuine, not to mention unprecedented (can't recall it happening ever, at least in the new series, and never to her); it's enough to cause one to lose faith in the Time Lord completely. The Doctor does respond when Clara reaches her hand out blindly backwards in a late gesture of faith, but the absolute trust (of Clara, of the audience) in the Doctor has been broken; wonder if Moffat will make more of this in future episodes

Interesting that the mechanisms collecting body parts in this episode are somehow related to the equally acquisitive clockwork robots in The Girl in the Fireplace; Moffat seems to like machines or situations trapped in faulty programs or circumstances--seems to mirror his fascination with human lives locked or trapped in timey-wimey loops or currents (see my thoughts on River Song).  

Love the steampunk sensibility, from the clockwork opening credits (inspired by a fan video) to automatons in Victorian upper-class garb. The future often seems less and less interesting from a production point of view nowadays--the hero either runs down a featureless metal corridors or featureless plastic corridors (take your pick). At least with steampunk you can hope for wood paneling and brass fittings, not to mention the occasional hissing gas lamp.

Love that despite the Doctor's more calculating nature there is an attempt to endorse him, bottle-cap prying brows and all, to Clara's care, and who else to speak up on his behalf than the previous, much-beloved Doctor? Moffat's default tone seems to be smart-alecky wit than anything else, but he's also skilled at the small poignant moment (think of Officer Billy Shipton and his much-delayed date); Moffat's moment here (thanks in no small part to Matt Smith) seems sharper than it has been for some time. 



Moffat shares writing credits with Phil Ford for Into the Dalek. Premise is simple: the Doctor goes all Fantastic Voyage on us, is miniaturized and then inserted into a dying 'good' Dalek in an attempt to save it. Yes, I know; yet another Dalek story--but I submit Moffat introduced new chills in an earlier attempt ("Eggs eggs eggs eggs") and does so again here, this time operating on a microphage level, allowing us insights into the complex relationship between a Dalek and its computer-mediated armor, and--as with the earlier episode--again trying for a radical redefinition, this time of a classic Who villain. 

Doesn't seem like a big deal, but think about it: an insane Dalek fights out of love or a sense of wonder; a sane Dalek fights the way it always fights, out of hate. It can fight for bad or (in this episode) for good, for or against its fellow mutants, but there can only be one  ruling desire: the utter destruction of whatever has been targeted. I'll admit Daleks have been around too long and too often to be frightening anymore, have been reduced to being a popular Halloween costume. Perhaps the most Moffat's idea can do is induce a brief pause, where you consider what he's saying; if you allow the point to drive home, though, that pause can be followed by a delicious little shiver (hate serving good or hate serving evil is still hate). That the Dalek chooses to fight his own people due to the Doctor's own hate--that's the tragic little fillip that adds piquancy to Moffat's concept.



Call Robot of Sherwood a palate cleanser, Mark Gatiss' attempt at silliness. Uncharacteristic--the titles of Gatiss' episodes usually announce his intentions (The Unquiet Dead; Night Terrors; The Crimson Horror), comedy not usually one of them. That said, being threatened by the charisma and relentless cheer of Sherwood's merriest bandit seems exactly what the Doctor needs, and he rises to the occasion with  inspired petulance, crotchety-old-man style. The plot doesn't make sense (why would alien robots want so much gold? Why are the robots themselves so slow and altogether lame?), but the banter between the Doctor and his equally legendary rival (even if the Doctor himself doesn't approve) is a lovely little change of tone, a brief evocation if you like of Matt Smith's early days

Like it that the Doctor, meeting a living legend, tries to cast the situation in "is he or isn't he real?" terms, and Gatiss' story concludes with a third possibility: that the relationship between legends and the people who inspire them isn't necessarily linear, much less logical. Interesting point, for an ostensibly lightweight episode.  
   

If The Eleventh Hour is Moffat's elaboration on The Girl in the Fireplace and Deep Breath its implied sequel (the clockwork Victorians in Deep being cousin to the clockwork Frenchmen in Girl), call Listen Moffat's attempt to do another Blink.  

Plenty of chilling moments--the chalk rolling across the floor, the figure under the bedspread, the knocking on the ship's hull--without matching Blink's intensely ratcheted suspense (for that you need a brilliant plot developed cleanly and clearly, the tension prioritized over ambiguity and atmosphere). Not all of the thrills are even original--the knocking I submit is Moffat's shout-out to Midnight, one of Russell T. Davies' best scripts. 

In one sense the episode is even more stripped-down than Midnight: instead of a handful of characters it bears down on three; instead of an unseen villain it basically has none. The mind in danger hasn't been taken over so much as traumatized--the damage was there all the time.

But Listen seems more than all that--more than just another scare episode along the lines of Midnight or Blink. It ranges from the end of the universe to the Doctor's childhood; it skips from Clara's bedroom to a London restaurant to a crashed ship to a Gallifreyan barn. It careens through wildly different emotional tones, taking time along the way to sketch out the outlines of Clara and Dan's budding (if rocky) romance.

Listen doesn't have the sharp poignance of Billy Shipton's story, or the wrenching loss of Madame de Pompadour's, but there is I submit something moving here in a broader, even deeper, way. The episode takes Moffat's tendency to tinker with the meaning of bits and pieces and raises the stakes considerably: Deep Breath tried to redefine the significance of the Doctor's younger incarnations, Into the Dalek a Dalek's relentlessness, Robot of Sherwood the relationship between a man and his developing legend. Listen seems to want to redefine nothing less than the Doctor's deepest motives: what makes him seek out companionship all the time (humans in general, females in particular); what makes him want to help others; what makes him run--maybe even what made him steal a TARDIS in the first place, flee into the vast reaches of space and time. Easily the best episode of the season so far, and possibly Moffat's finest script in some time. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Broken Marriage (Ishmael Bernal, 1983)

Trench warfare

(Warning: the story of Ishmal Bernal's films Relasyon (The Affair, 1982) and Broken Marriage (1983) are discussed in close detail

Film available online (can't link to it directly though--go look for yourself!), which is one reason why I'm reposting this. No English subtitles, alas.

You might say Ishmael Bernal's Broken Marriage (1983), his follow-up to the successful melodrama Relasyon (The Affair, 1982), isn't quite as commercially or critically successful (the film's star Vilma Santos managed to sweep all acting awards with her performance in the previous production). I suppose it's easy to see why: the earlier film looks at marriage from an unusual point of view (from the outside, or from that of the mistress); the earlier film has a relatively streamlined and somewhat titillating story (a man estranged from his wife moves in with his mistress) with a suitably dramatic finale (death by aneurysm, harrowingly shot and staged by Bernal in a single take). 

Reportedly Ms. Santos, buoyed by the many acting awards earned by Relasyon, was so eager to do well in the new production that Bernal got irritated, locked her in a bathroom, and delivered to her an ultimatum: she was not coming out till she got over her 'hysteria.'

One sees what made the latter so successful, the same time watching this one sees why Bernal didn't want to simply duplicate that success. Relasyon was a lean and elegantly told melodrama that took a sidelong look at the institution of Filipino marriage; in Broken Marriage Bernal wanted to focus on the institution sans oblique glances. He didn't want to film some doomed struggle to keep love alive but something less dramatic, far more difficult to capture: the aftermath of a protracted war, where the ultimate casualty is married love. He in effect didn't want Ms. Santos at her perkiest and most energetic--he wanted her exhausted, looking for a way out, and to her credit Ms. Santos delivers.

The film is a gem of contemporary neorealist drama not the least for what it doesn't have: soapy music (what little there is sounds incongruously cheerful, an ironic ditty for some kind of happy little family movie), fancy production values (the middle-class houses look as if they were actually bought and furnished using middle-class incomes), histrionic acting. As a kind of sly commentary on this Bernal has the wife Ellen (Vilma) working as production assistant to a TV director (Tessie Tomas) working on an endless series of soaps. In one scene Ellen looks on as soap husband and soap wife take the familiar pose of classic melodrama (staring off into the distance, with an expression of haunted tragedy on their faces), intoning kilometric lines of bathetic woe. Contrast this with the fight she just had with her husband Rene (Christopher De Leon, who played philandering husband to Ms. Santos' martyred mistress in Relasyon): messy, unlyrical, jagged in rhythm and emotion and dialogue (one wonders if Bernal had the actors improvise their lines), with an unsatisfying resolution. 

It's actually remarkable how Bernal without being too obvious about it manages to refract Ellen and Rene's marriage several ways. Aside from seeing it through traditional pop media (the television soap), we see it re-enacted through the quarrels of a gay couple--Rene has at this point moved out and into a house serving as residence to an artist's community. He's eating breakfast when suddenly one lover runs down the stairs and starts yelling at the other, who sits sullenly, listening. You can see Rene reacting as he recognizes some of the words--similar if not exactly the same as what Ellen has yelled at him, time and time again (this, incidentally, could be considered one of Christopher De Leon's subtlest, finest performances--impressive, considering he's not known for understated acting). 

Likewise, when Ellen has moved into her mother's house we (as well as Ellen) recognize ourselves in her younger sister and boyfriend albeit at a younger age, with love still in bloom and marriage an unknown adventure. Again the contrast--the occasionally tempestuous love between two youths and the steadier flame between two veterans: scarred, wary, wondering how much more of this they can or need to take.

Bernal shoots most of the film in a series of long takes, much as he would to capture a performance onstage; he has the camera move to frame and reframe actors  when they argue, sometimes indicating a shift in the power struggle between them. When the argument goes on and on Bernal's camera takes on an unblinking, relentless quality, refusing to turn its gaze until frustrated husband and infuriated wife have hurled their last venomous barb at each other and are left, weaponless and exhausted, on a devastated plain. 

The film ends with Rene moving into Ellen's mother's house, and the two attempting reconciliation--an ostensible happy ending. But: one has to remember that the two finally turn to each other when they have no other alternative, when their prospective lovers fail to measure up, when they could not tolerate yet another night alone in bed. Marriage is a slog, a neverending struggle, a source of constant pain--but there are less palatable alternatives out there, and you can do much much worse than to just stick with each other and try make it work. As for the reconciliation? Not a guarantee; an accommodation, a ceasefire ready to be withdrawn at the first sign of struggle. I wouldn't trust them to stay together past the end credits--would you?

4.8.12


Friday, September 12, 2014

Batch '81 (Mike de Leon, 1982) -- tribute to Mark Gil (1961 - 2014)


RIP Mark Gil, 1961 - 2014

Blood brothers

Call it his fascist masterpiece. Mike de Leon's Batch '81 is an allegorical treatise on the nature of fascism, specifically that of the Marcos Administration, in a film that makes its argument (I submit) largely through fascist means.

De Leon's reputation as a control freak is legendary and, to be honest, not entirely unfounded. Here he tells the story of one Sid Lucero, aspiring to enter the frat Alpha Kappa Omega: through Sid's eyes we see the initiation process, through his ears we hear the rules and philosophy of the fraternity, through his thoughts (done in voiceover) we learn of his reaction to the frat's unfolding nature. Oh, Sid spends onscreen time with his fellow pledges, who function as distinct supporting players (strangely the frat masters remain mostly undifferentiated walking ciphers), but it's only Sid's thoughts we hear, only Sid's consciousness that absorbs the film's narrative, even the corollary narratives of his brothers. 

De Leon has rarely been shy about his admiration for legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick; if anything you can see Kubrick's influence on De Leon's geometrically meticulous visual style, his distant emotional tone, his tendency to subject characters to forces beyond their control. If Kisapmata is De Leon's tribute to Kubrick's The Shining (the former in my opinion being the superior film), Batch '81 would arguably be De Leon's Clockwork Orange, and not merely because of an overt Clockwork-style rock-music number, where a mannequin is eviscerated onscreen: specific events are mirrored (a head dunked in a tank of filthy water; a man  strapped to a chair; one film beginning with a gang rumble, the other ending with same), crucial themes echoed ("Anong desisyon mo?" (What's your decision?) recalling Clockwork's onscreen query: "What's it going to be then, eh?"--both films focusing on the primacy and degradation of free will).
 
If there's a difference between the two I'd say it's one borne of circumstance: Kubrick was a well-funded filmmaker, with a healthy commercial relationship tangential if not completely dependent on mainstream Hollywood. De Leon is not without resources (he is the grandson of film matriarch Narcisa De Leon, of LVN Pictures) but his budgets, if not starvation poor, are modest, and he scales his ambitions accordingly. Where Kubrick's films are elaborately constructed and obsessively detailed mindscapes, the extravagant sets used eccentrically (the vast hotel in The Shining, the unending ship in 2001, the decadent mansions in Paths of Glory, Lolita, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut) De Leon goes the other direction, employing naturalistic environments (a family home, a frat house basement) expressionistically, transforming them into psychic traps where his characters gnaw desperately at each other and at themselves, seeking escape. 

Hence the frat house in Batch '81, where much of the action takes place. As designed by longtime De Leon collaborator Cesar Hernando the rooms are claustrophobic spaces where people can scream freely unheard, too small for those confined (seven freshly hatched pledges) to avoid notice, too narrow for them to do anything other than ask "more please!" The rooms eliminate any notion of freedom, any possible lifestyle alternative (a frat-free college career, for one), any thoughts outside of the moment: you are in a world of pain, and endurance of that pain is the sum total meaning of your life (past and future--other than your pending membership--having been beaten out of your skull).

De Leon's cinematography has always been functional almost to the point of unimpressive at least on first viewing, though they do have a crispness of image and precision of effect few other filmmakers, Filipino or otherwise, can touch. For this production De Leon (with cinematographer Rody Lacap) lights the sets with brutal frankness, the sole source of light often apparently being an incandescent bulb or two. Kubrick employs similar lighting in several of his films (the prison stage show in Clockwork; the lunar excavation in 2001), but where Kubrick uses the harsh glare to herald a spectacular revelation--the results of a mind experiment, the climax of an alien civilization's patient manipulations--De Leon employs them for a more quotidian reason: to illuminate the truth without flinching, without evasion. To show physical and psychological violence unadorned.


Need to mention one of De Leon's most important collaborators--don't usually like to discuss acting as I subscribe to Robert Bresson's theory on the subject (no actors, no parts, no staging; being as opposed to seeming) but even I have to admit much of the force of the film is due to the performance of the late great Mark Gil as Sid. If Al Pacino does volatile like no other actor, and Robert De Niro intense interiority, Gil seems to do both well, flipping effortlessly from one (yelling as his friend is being killed before him) to the other (meditating on his batchmates' faithlessness). And where De Niro practiced Method to the point of eating his way to obesity for Raging Bull, I doubt if even he is capable of enduring what Gil endures in one particularly harrowing scene, involving surgical clamps. No CGI, no apparent prosthetics--prosthetics do not gradually turn red onscreen. 

Finally the script, by industry veterans Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr., Raquel Villavicencio, and De Leon himself: a clean, linear storyline that traces Sid's transformation from trembling neophyte to full frat brother. Aphorisms (presumably recorded by the writers from actual frat language) are constantly flung about during the rituals: "Ang simula at wakas ay kapatiran" (Brotherhood is the beginning and the end)--a statement that sounds profound but is essentially meaningless, the kind of exciting, easy-to-remember slogan extolling unity and obedience the Soviet Union used to crank out by the thousands. Sid repeats many of these himself, with less and less conviction as adversity raises doubt in the pledges' minds--a condition that the frat eventually addresses, in the film's key scene.

An elaborately designed electric chair straps and all with a remote button is introduced, and the pledges are literally pushed to their physical and mental limits. A frat master (actor Chito Ponce Enrile, brother of Marcos' Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile) explains: "Trust your frat. Hindi naman hinihingi ng frat ang hindi n'yo kaya (The frat doesn't ask for more than you can give)...ang importante ay makapagdesisyon kayo. Kailangan makipagdesisyon ang bawat isa sa inyo...(...what's important is that you decide. Each of you need to decide for yourself...)." The frat makes its case to the pledges in a reasonable, measured (but nevertheless authoritative) voice, not demanding but asking them to willingly put their faith in the group, put their faith in something bigger than themselves. As Anthony Burgess in his novel repeatedly asks to the reader (the repetitiveness--and urgency, in my view--markedly reduced in Kubrick's film): "What's it going to be then, eh?" It's I submit the hook with which a fascist organization or government wins undying loyalty from its followers: the carefully presented moment when a man is asked, pen poised in hand, to sign away above the dotted line.

But that's the plea; what seals the deal is sacrifice, preferably involving blood. We see hints of that in the contusions covering one pledge's chest, as he reveals he was coerced into participating in the electric-chair stunt; we see it more prominently later on when another pledge is killed by a rival gang and a full-fledged rumble takes place, literally an orgy of gore. Any breath or whisper of skepticism, of protest, of defiance is silenced--now and forever--once blood has been spilled; there's nothing like the (as Burgess put it) "red red krovvy on tap" to validate an idea beyond any possible doubt. 

De Leon ends the film the way Kubrick ended his 2001, with the Star Child gazing straight through the screen at us, only where the Star Child radiates an air of serene transcendence, Sid Lucero's face--head slightly lowered, eyes level and direct--seems utterly drained of emotion, his lips mouthing the frat's principles with mechanized fluency ("Ang simula at wakas ay kapatiran!"). He is cured all right--of all reason, all intelligent thought, all sign or taint of humanity. He has evolved in opposite direction from the Star Child, towards total obedience, and has done so of his own free will.

Kubrick ends Clockwork on a joyous note, but it's a cynical joy, a passive despairing acceptance of the way things are--in effect, terrible. I much prefer Burgess' original novel, where an additional unfilmed chapter whispered the hint of a bizarre and bitter redemption, of the possibility of change. De Leon despite being (I suspect) every bit as misanthropic as Kubrick doesn't end his film the same way; that final shot of soulless Sid is his way of asking us to contemplate the entire trajectory of the man's character, from God-made fruit capable of sweetness to clockwork automaton, giving us a moment--on confronting this monstrous thing with the swinging paddle and mechanical moving lips--to mourn the irreplaceable, irrevocable loss.     

First published in Businessworld, 9.4.14


Friday, September 05, 2014

Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (Lars Von Trier, 2013)



Sex and the silly too

Lars Von Triers Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 chronicled the sexual adventures of one Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in her formative years (played as a younger woman by Stacy Martin), with Good Samaritan Seligman (Von Trier veteran Stellan Skarsgaard) as intelligent, appreciative audience. I carped about how the sex was largely intellectualized (when Skarsgaard is told that Joe was penetrated three times vaginally, five times anally, he starts babbling about Fibonacci numbers), the humiliation too unbelievably grotesque (a jealous housewife played by Uma Thurman asks of Joe "would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?"), the kinkiness lacking sadomasochistic flavor. In Vol. 2 Joe finally indulges in some spanking, not to mention biblical-level whipping, and the emotional stakes are raised--she has a family now, thanks in part to her true love Jerome (Shia LeBouf, who for the first time in his career is doing something actually interesting); she actually has something worth losing (unlike her hymen, which seemed about as substantial as morning dew).

Then there's K (Jamie Bell), a--get this--professional sadist (an assumption: we don't actually see him getting paid) who caters to listless housewives mostly, prosperous women bored out of their minds (sounds like the setup for a classic Monty Python sketch, only Von Trier lacks the comic timing or Swiftian rigor of a Python). K's rules, of which there are many, boil down to two: he doesn't use safe words, nor does his manner suggest benign dominion (which to be fair does put the film ahead of more wholesome erotica like Steven Shainberg's insipid Secretary), and he doesn't fuck his subjects--which far as I'm concerned (you have Gainsbourg strapped to your couch and don't take advantage?) identifies K as a citizen of Fantasyland. Have I mentioned Von Trier's issues with plausibility yet?

At one point Love-of-Her-Life Jerome confronts Joe with a mother's ultimate choice: a whipping session with K or her family. Heartbreaking cliffhanger, if you haven't happened to have already seen Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman, in which case you already know her decision. The contrast between the two filmmakers is instructive: Ophuls takes the melodrama and delicately grants it a transcendent poignancy; Von Triers wields a secondhand sledgehammer and swings away until something shatters. He prepares us for tragedy by quoting the child-in-peril scene from one of his previous efforts (the as-silly if more obviously grotesque Antichrist) then shoves in the Ophuls (the aforementioned hearth vs. hedonism dilemma) like an uninvited dildo. Meanwhile, K nearly flays the skin off Joe's superb derriere and refuses (even after Joe begs) to go a step further (really pulls me out of the picture, that refusal). 

Later Von Triers does a little special pleading, insisting that his grubby little porno's really a brave feminist tract: "If she was a man would people say this or that, think this or that of her?" I like the message: a woman has the right to be anything, even self-destructive, but I've read classic erotic literature that demonstrates exactly that without being so blatantly bizarre (The Story of O, anyone?); more, I submit that we already have a film--a Filipino film--that has dealt (more gracefully, more sensually) with the theme (Laurice Guillen's Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, 1983) anyone?). 

Implausible, unsubtle, ungraceful--have I missed out anything?

I suppose I can forgive Von Trier for borrowing so heavily; anyone can experience a crisis in inspiration. Maybe my biggest gripe involves the near-total lack of anything resembling coherent psychology in any of his characters (K's inexplicable chastity, for one). Why does Joe's vagina suddenly go numb with the prospect of sexual fidelity? Why is Jerome so excessively brutal when nothing he's said or done in the past suggests the presence or even gradual development of such brutality (K maybe, but not Jerome)? Why does Seligman who has shown so little sexual appetite all this time do a sudden about-face? 

Actually there is an explanation for all these bizarre goings-on: they're Von Trier's way of forcing a point, executing a punchline, realizing his concept on the big screen. Problem is he only seems to care about the effect; couldn't care less how it's caused. Like Jerome, he just wants his Fibonacci fucking: three fore, five aft, to hell with lubrication.  

At one point Joe propositions a black man for sex; they meet at a cheap, anonymous hotel, only the man isn't alone--he's brought his brother. The two mount Joe simultaneously, all the while arguing which dick will fill what hole; Von Trier films at hip level, the camera lens capturing the brothers' extensive equipment at half-staff waving at each other, and--wouldn't you know it?--I recognized the scene, a tepid version of something Blake Edwards did some twenty-four years ago, only Edwards had the wit to shoot in total darkness, with a pair of glow-in-the-dark condoms. Oh, Mr. Von Trier, not only does your sales pitch require serious polishing, your merchandise is starting to smell stale. 

First published in Businessworld, 8.28.14