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

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