Sunday, March 30, 2014

Joe's wild years

As promised, here’s the follow-up to the article I wrote two weeks ago after watching volume one of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, having now seen volume two as well (both parts are playing at the Bell Lightbox, and are also available on-demand). To recap, the film is structured around Joe, a middle-aged woman, telling the story of her life to Seligman, an older man, after he comes across her injured in the street; with few exceptions, virtually everything she tells him is sexual in nature, reflecting the dominant preoccupation and motivation of her existence. Last time, I said that even if part one seldom seems truly new or revelatory, it’s much more fascinating than not, and in retrospect, I more or less filled this space by recounting colourful highlights, as if summing up a day at the carnival.

Darker territory

At the end of the first part, Joe suddenly cries out that she can no longer feel anything, and volume two reflects the loss of the reckless momentum that often drove its predecessor. She gets married and has a son, but after a while she’s seeking out other men again, with a greater need now for pain and danger. Eventually, all of this takes its toll, making sex too painful; she moves into the debt collection business, where her detailed knowledge of male weakness supplements the strong-arm tactics of her co-workers. It all ends grimly, as we’ve known it will from the start. In part one, Seligman supplements her story with intellectual reference points and digressions, but he starts to run dry as the story darkens, and she comments on the declining stimuli he and his room provide her (continuing the possibility that her story might be partially invented). He tells her that he’s a virgin, and asexual, and the confession more or less coincides with her story’s turn into greater bleakness, as if his cleanliness had to be abrasively balanced out.

Deliberately or not, the film suggests that fully achieved nymphomania – a term that Joe brandishes proudly in contrast to the more clinical “sex addict” – is the province of the young, eventually running into declining opportunity, creativity and stamina. Like a conflicted artist, she can sometimes step back and admire the artistry of what she’s achieved, knowing that by its very extremity and capacity to repel, she’s achieved something beyond normal boundaries. I mentioned last time how the film’s rather unplaceable location supports a sense of disembodiment - all the indications are that it’s set in Britain, but it doesn’t really feel like it, or like anywhere specific – and the second part extends this nowhereness: we get a brief glimpse of an office where Joe works, but in this context, its familiar blandness seems weirdly alien. Even more so because volume two’s strangest character, a dominator who whips and beats up willing women, works out of a similar space, where his subjects wait silently as you would in a government office, with no fixed appointment time.

A work of pornography?

Charlotte Gainsbourg is an effective focal point for the sense of accumulating wear and tear, but von Trier basically doesn’t seem to find Joe’s descent as artistically galvanizing as her earlier peak, and the film gets mired in increasingly strained, unlikely melodrama. This can be defended as an artistic strategy, in externalizing Joe’s declining physical and psychological scope, dramatizing how her life inevitably hems her in; likewise, it makes a sad kind of sense how she entirely loses control of events in the end. But this doesn’t take us anywhere much different from Looking for Mr. Goodbar or for that matter from classic Hollywood film noir, in which women who challenge male supremacy must always pay a price, usually their lives. Near the end, Seligman sums up her life in explicitly those kinds of terms, claiming that if much of what she’d done as a woman had been done as a man, no one would think much of it. Even if this is true (and in her case it’s probably a bit overstated), it’s unrevealing, because the distinction could hardly be more familiar. It’s disappointing that von Trier is left merely asserting this weary battleground, rather than finding a new way to navigate across it.

In this respect, I’m inclined to agree with David Denby in The New Yorker that it’s largely a mistake for the film even to toy with real people and real feelings: “this is a work of pornography,” he says, “in which fantasy, and the contemplation of it, is the only thing that’s real” (Denby judges that the film “falls apart at the end”). But this overlooks another startling moment late in the film, when Joe, trying to get at the weakness of a defaulter who seems immune to the usual smashed furniture and physical threats, suddenly detects and forces him to acknowledge his pedophilia, an urge he’s spent his whole life suppressing. Far from being repulsed, responding to what she sees as his lack of culpability for his own desires, and his courage in resisting them, she performs a spontaneous act of kindness, which in the telling disturbs even Seligman’s sense of equanimity. For a moment, you perceive how the film might have broken through to something less hermetic, more disturbing and politically current, to an exploration of the lies we all tell about our tastes and dreams, some of them necessary to society’s functioning, others purely ideological.

The myth of von Trier

But it doesn’t go there, and Denby is correct in emphasizing the film’s status as pornography, in the sense that what’s happening there on the screen as sure as hell isn’t what’s happening here in our lives. Ultimately, even though part one ends abruptly in the middle of things, it feels in many ways more coherent than the completed work, as an erotic artistic playground needing no more justification than the equilibrium of its own elements. The second half’s extensions succeed in tearing up the playground, but there’s more than a little redundancy to that project. And so ultimately, the film abandons us, like its protagonist, to the shadows.

Still, it adds significantly to the myth of Lars von Trier, a filmmaker of enormous breadth and flexibility, who sometimes seems to be reaching for (sometimes seems to be achieving) an ongoing cultural synthesis of such daring proportions that no one can figure it out, especially as what we see of the man himself (prone to “controversial” outbursts, unwilling to travel outside Europe, and so forth) often suggests that what he’s achieving can’t possibly be as momentous as you intermittently wonder. I’ve tended to find his films don’t much live in the memory; others disappoint on a second viewing. I think Nymphomaniac, for all its flaws, perhaps because of them, might endure better than most, not just because you remember the dirty stories better than the others, but yes, partly because of that.

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