Monday, April 7, 2014

A Word About Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" and the Nature of Episodic Cinema

Lars von Trier is a provocateur in the best sense of the word, because he is a real artist. Despite the nihilism of his overall persona and the persona of his films, the messages that lie dormant underneath are usually rather well-meaning even if they are wrapped in a tight, bleak shroud. His latest film was talked about for years before it even came out. Nymphomaniac started getting publicity when it cast professional self-promoter Shia LeBouf in one of the lead roles. The young actor bragged about how the sex in the movie would be real and un-simulated. The whole situation put people in such a tizzy that people forgot that this is something that von Trier has done before with 1998's The Idiots and that his own film company, Zentropa, was the world's first mainstream film company to produce actual pornography. von Trier's ideas about what is pornographic is incredibly different from most people's, especially in America. So, while many may see Nymphomaniac as von Trier taking a step further into the status Premier Controversial Filmmaker, I personally think he blew his wad in 2009 with Antichrist which was filled with so many hard-to-watch elements that I couldn't bear to even finish it (I have since learned of the graphic moments in the end and let's just say that I still feel very comfortable with my decision, and to this day still haven't seen the full film).

The two-part Nymphomaniac teased with an objectively great trailer and delivered a film that definitely has more close-ups of genitals then any other mainstream film that I've ever seen. If we're going for sure quantity of graphic images, von Trier hits them all as if he's playing a turbo round of pinball. Altogether, the whole story ends up coming close to four hours. After going through Emily Watson, Bjork, Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard, von Trier has finally found an actress who will take his abuse and then come back and ask for seconds. Nymphomaniac is the third film that Charlotte Gainsbourg has made with the director, after Antichrist and 2011's Melancholia. von Trier is infamous for putting his actresses through the ringer, pressing them through emotional intimacies in a way that many psychologists would probably call unhealthy. This is the ultimate dichotomy of the Danish filmmaker: almost no one creates as many good roles for women as consistently as he does, and yet seldom does a filmmaker make actresses commit to such physically demanding and emotionally painful set pieces. Nymphomaniac seems like the epitome of that, and yet it's probably the male nudity that's more plentiful. Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin, who plays the younger version of Gainsbourg's character, have a plentiful share of the sexual burden, but a large portion of this film is a parade of faceless, erect penises.

What is Lars von Trier getting at with all this? The hypocrisy within the censorship of sexuality in Western countries seems like his prime target, as he not only shows dozens of rockin' boners but puts such an onus on the sexual pleasure of the female characters. Historically, these have both been big no-no's, with a tradition of censoring female promiscuity and replacing it with female exploitation. von Trier instead puts the men in the role of the nameless naked body, while any woman in the film that happens to take her clothes off is also a major character with a name and motivation. It's fascinating as a study, made even more interesting by the film's ending which I won't spoil here. And yet, as a film, I feel like all of this could have been said in ninety minutes. The story drags on and on, not connecting enough to really justify its bloated running time. The film's final scene makes its thesis known: the continual abuse and objectification of women is sickening; but why did we need four hours to get there? Which brings me to my main point: films are becoming so episodic lately with franchises booting up left and right, readymade with sequels already in the bag. And while this is happening, television is becoming more cinematic, with shows like True Detective and Orange is the New Black really stretching the definition of what television actually is.

The somewhat cross pollination of television and film isn't brand new. In 1992, Twin Peaks was one of the first major shows to feel like a season-long movie, and in 2003 Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films used different volumes to tell the same story in a variety of different ways. But now is the only time that I can think of where film and television seem to competing against each other by copying each's format. More and more, television shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones are choosing to describe themselves as "thirteen-hour movies" or "ten-hour movies", while Hollywood seems to have a perpetual obsession with brands, casting their bets exclusively on films that promise more to come. The Marvel Universe, with its multiple strands of superhero mythology, is the toast of Hollywood right now, even if only half of those movies are at all interesting. The success of the Harry Potter and X-Men franchises have all but convinced film to put all their eggs in the episodic basket. This movement is choking mainstream filmmaking, where Hollywood has decided that superhero movies are for boys and heroine-led book adaptations are for girls, and anyone who may be interested in anything else shouldn't bother cause they're not the audience studios are trying to market to anyway. Much has been written lately about the death of the romantic comedy, but I'd be hard-pressed to find any non-super hero genre that's working in the green right now.

Now, Lars von Trier does not make films in the mainstream, quite the contrary. Which is why his splitting Nymphomaniac into two two-hour volumes is so distressing. Of course, von Trier did television in the 90's, including the four-part miniseries The Kingdom, which came before his breakthrough film Breaking The Waves. So this isn't something new. But von Trier will always be the rebellious Dogme child that he was. His interest as a filmmaker has rarely been narrative based, but ideas based. Often, his films are experiments on a radical theory, the way The Idiots was a strict interpretation of the Dogme Manifesto and Dancer in the Dark was a musical about non-musical themes. Nymphomaniac is another experiment, this time in the use of illicit, pornographic images within a non-pornographic movie. The film is equipped with a framing device (Gainsbourg recounts her story to a character played by Stellan Skarsgaard), and then there's a framing device within the framing device (her story is broken up into eight individual chapters), which add nothing but an attempt at credence to the film's incredible length. The film goes off in so many tangents that its thesis becomes muddled, and von Trier has no choice but to have Skarsgaard explicitly explain it to the audience a the film's conclusion. Its story is stretched so thin that, like television, it has its moments of charm and it has its moments of tiresome redundancy.

If Melancholia was a return to form for the Danish filmmaker, then Nymphomaniac is him at his most self-indulgent. But self-indulgence is something I expect from von Trier, after all, he thinks he is the greatest director in the world. But it's disappointing to see von Trier's self-indulgence fall flat into the middle of the film and television war (the rivalry between TV and film has always felt funny to me - you never see rivalries between a painter and a photographer). If anything, recent films like Enemy and Under The Skin showcase what cinema can offer that television can't - that film has the ability to subvert narrative if it chooses to, where television is bound by it. Episodic cinema is not something that is wholly bad, but by its very definition, it cannot be wholly good either. The longer you tell a story, the more opportunities there are for mundanity, and the foggier the focus of a certain story becomes. If anything, television is gaining credit for being more like the movies. Hollywood should find that flattering. Instead, they're trying to combat that by trying to be more like television. This policy has proven to work monetarily, as franchises continue to print money regardless of quality, but I'd be weary of true artists trying to exploit this format within independent film. It just makes the whole situation a lot blurrier.

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