Nymphomaniac (V2)

No more wounds

Read my writeup of Nymphomaniac: Volume I here.

nymphomaniac2The second film (or rather, the second half of one long film) in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac duology, sees the exeunt of Stacy Martin as the young version of Joe, which means we get to see Charlotte Gainsbourg do more than sit in a poorly lit room.  What the film unfortunately does, however, is remind us that it’s made by a cynical filmmaker who loves to smash sandcastles after hours of careful building.  I never thought he could do worse than his slow-burning and nightmarish destruction of Earth in Melancholia, but at least that film did not operate under the pretense that things might end up okay.

From the start of Volume II, things I picked at in the first volume begin to make sense.  Joe becomes tired, much as I did, of Seligman’s constant allegorical digressions, but soon realizes that it’s because he cannot relate to the content of her stories.  He reveals that he’s a virgin and considers himself asexual, which makes him the perfect audience for her chronicle.  He recognizes some serious iconography in the story of her first orgasm – apparently, when she was twelve and on a field trip, she spontaneously levitated and had a vision of Valeria Messalina and Babylon the Great (two promiscuous mythological figures with rather sexist story trajectories, even by Christian standards).  This is important because Joe went through life assuming that these were separate versions of the Virgin Mary judging her for her transgressions, but they actually represented the great schism of the Church, after which the Orthodox (Eastern) side focused on redemption, while the Western church became obsessed with suffering.  What a motif.  “The concept of religion is interesting,” he says, “just as the concept of sex is interesting.  But you won’t find me on my knees in regards to either.”

Such indulgent dialogue is fine when it’s so delicious.  But the question of whether von Trier’s synthetic framing devices for the film mean something, or leastways whether we’re supposed to take them seriously, is soon answered.  Yes, dummy, he seems to tell us.  Don’t you remember who I am?  I made Antichrist! Seligman, in a broad commentary on epic storytelling, uses his own personal experience (texts, mathematics, etc.) to form an understanding of the story, just as an audience to anything would.  But as it should be, that’s without bringing his own opinion into it: he makes himself an impartial witness by claiming to be Joe’s inverse.  As such, he continues to play the part of observer and listener, and when he stops protesting the aforementioned “preposterous coincidences” in Joe’s story, that means we’re supposed to stop too.  But when von Trier introduces such an obvious plot device as Chekhov’s Gun, everything we thought we were onboard for becomes exasperating.

Where the first film is about character depth, this one is more about plot and overt themes.  So much so that summing up its events is reasonably easy: After Joe’s enjoyment of sex vanishes, she still hungers for it.  She and Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) accidentally conceive a child together, and after three years, Joe’s frustration has become so great and her sexual demands so high that Jerôme suggests she sleep with other people to satisfy her mood (while of course remaining a family with him and their son, because that usually works out).  Her exploration becomes increasingly violent, culminating in her visiting K, a menacing (not a word I thought I’d ever use to describe Jamie Bell) sadomasochist who viciously abuses women who volunteer, but never has sex with any of them.  Joe asks what he gets out of it.  He says it’s none of her business.  Convenient for not having to make him a real character – on that note, why doesn’t Seligman ask Joe why she uses the letters of the alphabet in the place of the real names of everyone but Jerôme?  We even get his surname, which we don’t even get for Joe.

Joe loses her family after prioritizing her visits to K over taking care of her son, and her employer demands that she seek counseling under penalty of losing her job.  There’s a bit of narrative whiplash here in terms of how we’re meant to view Joe: in Volume I, we never saw her as someone who needed to “get better,” or someone that we were supposed to “take care of.”  Now, we see her admit that she has a sickness.  The psychologist (Caroline Goodall) tells her to remove anything from her life that reminds her of sex.  In the next shot, her apartment is completely empty, and her mirror painted over.  Thankfully, she soon lambastes the therapy group, claiming that she loves herself and that she’s not like the rest of them, who have used sex to fill some hole (a word that gets deliberately repeated throughout both films) in their lives.  The next image, beneath a rocking Talking Heads soundtrack, shows Joe tossing a Molotov cocktail at a parked car and walking away like an apathetic action hero.  Did this really happen?  Seligman stops the story.  “Wait,” he says.  “I didn’t get that part.”

Joe backpedals.  She becomes an enforcer for a debt collector named L (Willem Dafoe), who respects her “qualifications” (i.e. she understands the desires of men, and knows how to hurt people).  Okay.  We get it.  Natural empathy is nonexistent to Joe.  But now we get a narrative manifestation of a theme, and in a story about a character, it’s too jarring.  Then we remember von Trier’s obsession with self-loathing, and that his films’ examinations of paranoia and depression carry an unequivocal undercurrent of cynicism.  Suddenly, in a film we can’t imagine an ending for, things don’t seem so rosy.  L suggests that Joe find a “successor,” and recommends P (Mia Goth), a fifteen year-old daughter of criminals.  The girl moves in with Joe, and their relationship soon grows, as it must, into a sexual one.  But where Volume I would have seen Seligman asking Joe if she knew she was interested in women (i.e. deepening her character), Volume II sticks to forward action.  P wants to work in debt collection too, so Joe brings her to work.  Finally, the Law of the Inevitable Coincidence takes over, and it’s particularly sad because we know it’s coming: one of the men Joe must extort is Jerôme (now played by Michaël Pas, which is off-putting after seeing LaBeouf in the role for 3+ hours).  What follows, which includes P’s betrayal of Joe, makes little sense because we haven’t gotten to know her very well, and ends where the first film begins: with Joe lying in the alleyway after a beating from the two people she actually has feelings for (and notice what P does to her in this scene.  “P.”  Get it? Hardy har, Lars).

Joe has never looked at the whole story like this before.  Look what she has in front of her: all of the most important parts of her life, compartmentalized in some truly dazzling (and above all, logical) ways.  There’s some sort of epiphany, maybe.  She wants to be who she is while pruning the parts of her that make happiness impossible.  She remembers seeing a lone, deformed tree at the top of a mountain.  We remember her father (Christian Slater) and his allegory about the lone, beautiful ash tree.  How the souls of trees look like the souls of people.  We remember Yggdrasil.  This really could end gently and nicely (not “happily,” mind you).

But then we remember something we forgot: it’s Lars von Trier.  The final thirty seconds of the film, while not undoing absolutely everything that came before, bring cynicism to the surface.  It’s pretty revolting, albeit awarding Joe with the agency she’s never had.  All at once, Seligman’s various “misunderstandings” about Joe’s story become the manifestation of horror that lurks in all of von Trier’s films, and in a much more personal way than a rogue planet bashing into Earth (although, in its actual physical movement, it is a bit like that).  We are reminded of Selma’s execution in Dancer in the Dark, of the destruction of Dogville at the hands of Nicole Kidman and James Caan.  None of those hurt quite like this.

Nymphomaniac is a fascinating character study, which is why the plot-centric nature of Volume II’s latter parts is so difficult.  The rare interruptions now come as reliefs rather than annoyances, even as Joe begins to point out that Seligman is beginning to jump the shark with his digressions.  The nonsensical parts of the story increase, and are pointed out less often, then eventually not at all.  For example, why would Willem Dafoe’s character seek Joe out?  Why would he care if she obtained an apprentice?  Why would he recommend this particular disturbed teenager?  How has Joe “heard of” K?  Why does he take her in after being so sure that S&M is “not for [her]”?  Why does Marcel (Joe’s son) completely disappear?  Why has Joe read all of Ian Fleming, but never heard of Poe (though it’s notable that James Bond, a character she idolizes, is a sex addict in the novels)?  The answer is the House of Cards Plot.  It all happens because it has to in order for the plot to reach a convenient point.  In this case, it works if the journey was all worth it.  I guess I’m still unsure whether von Trier is haranguing Joe or rooting for her.  Let me say this another way: if the writer is indifferent about the character, none of it means anything.  Maybe it doesn’t matter where Joe goes from here.  Just that she got to this point.

I could have watched a third volume if the ending of this one allowed for it, but similar to Joe when the tiny blot of sunlight outside the apartment signifies dawn, I am exhausted, and I have to be done.

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2014); written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, and Mia Goth. 

 

Snowpiercer

Size ten chaos

snowpiercerYour first hint about the depth of Snowpiercer is that it’s named after a gigantic plot device: a self-sustaining train that bashes through solid walls of ice and snow in order to continue its eternal loop around the world.  The film is effectively the underdog version of Edge of Tomorrow: based on dystopic graphic novels, starring a reliable Hollywood actor, and far more concerned with what’s happening than why it’s happening or why anyone should care.  Which parts, I wonder, did Harvey Weinstein want to trim or change?

The story takes place after humans attempt to combat global warming, and instead cause a new ice age that apparently wipes out all life on Earth, though I’m not sure whose in-universe conclusion that was.  Either way, the remaining people have taken refuge on the aforementioned train, whose magic engine is responsible for sustaining the lives of the few thousand humans left.  A few issues already: why can’t they just turn on the engine and keep the train at a standstill?  The treacherous snowstorms at every turn aren’t exactly facilitating the goal of survival.  Also, even with the great length of the train, a few thousand people are not enough to keep the human race alive, so it’s kind of an all-for-nothing game already, but the narrative itself seems unaware of that, so we’re left to suspend our disbelief.

We start with Curtis (Chris Evans), a Boring Hero who has become sick of the caste system put in place by those who run the front of the train.  Those in the “tail section,” including Curtis’s friends Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as one-armed/one-legged mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), live in squalor and eat nothing but blocks of protein that look like Jell-O and probably taste much less pleasant.  The story begins as a small army of mooks shows up and inexplicably takes away two of the tail section’s children, much to the chagrin of Curtis and Edgar, who spend five minutes speaking in exposition in a scene that would have been much more effective (and no less clear) if they hadn’t said anything at all.  A would-be riot occurs, during which inciter Andrew (Ewan Bremner) throws a shoe at the wrong person: Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton at her hammiest), who then makes an example of Andrew by making him stick his arm out the window of the train, exposing it to the cold until it is frozen and useless.  Then they slam it with a carnival mallet, because it’s fun to watch stuff shatter, and let’s face it, there’s nothing better to do.

Through some of the exposition, we gather that there was an attempt at revolution four years ago, but no one has been able to run the gauntlet to the front of the train.  But during today’s kidnapping, Curtis notices that Mason’s soldiers do not have bullets in their guns.  Gilliam agrees: these guys come in here with guns every day, but have never even fired a warning shot.  The next time they try something, Curtis rallies every able body in the tail section, including Tanya, whose son was one of the children abducted.  The good guys defeat the guards and rush through the gates that they’re not allowed to pass.  The movie still has two hours left, and it waits almost that long to try to develop the characters (y’know, after most of them are dead).

From here, Snowpiercer becomes a relentless Game-of-Death-style battle movie, in which each train car involves a different type of fighting, ranging from various Bull-shitsu to unnecessary slow-motion kills to Zero Dark Thirty found-footage night-vision.  The one bit of story that happens in between involves the freeing of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the film’s Belligerent Savant, from the prison car, along with his supposedly clairvoyant (because that’s normal!) daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung).  Nam is the creator of the gates that separate the train cars, so Curtis’s troupe needs him if they’re going to get far.  Through one thing and another, Curtis, Nam, and Yona make it to the end, where the two men have a heart-to-heart about whether they should open the final gate that leads to Wilford, the Godot Character who rules the train, or just blow a hole in the side of the car they’re in and see if they can survive outside (Nam has evidence that the snow is melting, but it’s mostly a blind-faith idea).  Just in time, Curtis is invited to the obligatory Dinner at the Ivory Tower, after which he has to choose whether to become the new, erm, “conductor,” as it were.

The scene prior to this, nearly two hours into the film, is the first time anything is revealed about Curtis and his motivations.  It’s a pretty good scene, but we needed it much earlier, before the exhausting battles and slaughter.  Chris Evans can act; there’s no question about that after The Iceman, but it would be nice if he were given the opportunity to do so before we’re asked to support his violent coup.  Sadly, his steak dinner with Wilford, which is thankfully not rushed (and which reveals that, much like the revolution in The Matrix, this revolt was planned by Wilford and Gilliam in order to keep the population of the train under control), brings attention to an important bit of Fridge Logic: why does the caste system exist in the first place?  No reason is given for the horrid conditions of the tail section, and it’s not as if finances have anything to do with it, since there’s no currency in this particular dystopia, just the damn train.  And after enduring so much intense violence, the lack of answers or depth is a real groin-punch, and it opens the sluice gates for a zillion other questions we’d have been willing to keep quiet about if we’d gotten some attempt at resolution or character development: why, if Wilford has spent his entire life obsessed with trains, does he never use one bit of correct railroad terminology?  How/why did the government greenlight the construction of a train that spans the entire world and never stops running?  How does a community of people survive on pure protein, without fruits and vegetables, without getting scurvy?  Why does Curtis react the way he does when he realizes that the protein blocks are made of processed insects?  People eat those in real life, and in many areas, are pretty happy to have them.  What is Minister Mason (Swinton’s character) “minister” of?  Why is she, in all her madcap glory, cast aside early and replaced by a silent Übermook?  How does such a large percentage of such a small human society have the exact body-type and low-rent aspirations conducive to becoming monstrous security guards who stand in a room all day, waiting for opponents to show up?  Why do they wear black masks?  Why use unreliable weapons like axes when the exact outcome of the battle is so vital to Wilford’s plan?  Why does a genius like Wilford think that cutting down an already-reproductively-insignificant population by 70% will ensure the survival of the human race?  Why keep the tail-section people in filth, poverty, and boredom, without even giving them the option to work jobs or somehow contribute, and then blame them for being useless?  Why keep them alive at all if you only want them for their children, when the people in the front are clearly reproducing too?  How did Edgar ever know what steak smelled like if he was born on the train?  Why are all the women either bereft mothers or vilified?  Does anyone not comprehend what Mason’s painfully obvious innuendo about keeping the aquarium population balanced is an allegory for?

Most important of all, if Curtis’s anger is based around the fact that he hates himself for becoming a selfish, deranged cannibal when he and his people were first corralled into the tail section – a scenario that almost saw him kill and eat the infant Edgar, after killing his mother, when food was scarce – how does he so readily abandon Edgar to die at the hands of Wilford’s forces, and then later execute a woman at pointblank range, right after ordering one of his mates to kill yet another woman (this time a pregnant teacher played by Alison Pill)?  Are we really supposed to sympathize with him after this?  It’s almost as if Curtis was deepened as an afterthought, without retrospect.  Does he really think he’s going to make humanity better by killing most of the remaining people?  Are we supposed to be inspired by the ending, in which two whole people survive the ordeal?  Good news for the polar bears.  Not so much for the humans.

The problem is the same one so many films and TV series have: the abundance of answers, and complete absence of justifications.  The focus on plot and not on characters.  We can’t care about what happens if we don’t care about the people it happens to.  Again and again, these House of Cards plots dictate a film’s story, and any coincidental characterization serves only to string one noisy, desensitizing fight scene to the next one.  Everyone loves to guess who will still be alive by the end, rather than get to know anyone before they’re put on the chopping block.

One piece of advice for aspiring dystopians: don’t struggle to have a point.  Don’t orbit some shopworn theme or broad idea.  Have a character worth caring about, and don’t kill them for shock value.  The rest is pretty easy.

Snowpiercer (2014); based on the graphic novels Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob; written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; directed by Bong Joon-ho; starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, and Song Kang-ho.

 

Jane Eyre

Anything but plain

It has been a long time, maybe forever, since I attended a movie that drew actual gasping and sobbing from the audience.  Nothing surprises us anymore.  Maybe it’s something about the clientele of an independent theatre vs. Regal (the latter of which makes one cry because of the ticket/concession prices, not the quality of the film).  Regardless, Cary Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Jane Eyre, based upon Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Gothic novel, made that happen.

For those of you non-literary readers (a term which seems backwards and perverse in and of itself), the first thing to note about Jane Eyre is that the novel is not simply a period romance, which is how it has been adapted in about twenty-four films and TV specials.  The novel itself is a Bildungsroman story featuring elements of Gothic horror and social criticism, and is most notably one of the earliest examples of the phrase “ahead of its time”: a gorgeous work of literature featuring a self-reliant female protagonist.  Jane is highly moral, but mature and individualistic, capable of evolving on her own, never appearing as a damsel in distress, never in need of rescue.  Fukunaga remembers all of this.

The story follows Jane Eyre, of course, played in this version by the staggeringly talented Mia Wasikowska (about whom I gushed in my Alice in Wonderland piece).  Growing up in the house of her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), Jane is frequently abused, physically and mentally.  Reticence, however, is not in Jane’s vocabulary.  She educates herself, sneaking a look at books when no one is around, as well as talking (and striking) back when provoked by her cousins.  As a result, she is told that she is deceitful, and is sent off to a special girls’ school.  Fukunaga gives us these early sections of the story in the form of flashbacks, with the interest of showing us that Wasikowska plays the version of Jane with whom we’ll be spending the most time.  This shifts the linear storytelling of the novel, but in the film, it’s not terribly distracting.  It’s not terribly needed either, but there you go.  With one thing and another, Jane becomes Governess at Thornfield Manor, teaching the young ward of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), with whom she will eventually fall in love, and befriending the aging housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench).

An amazing aspect of this film is that it retains the storytelling point of view of the novel: Jane Eyre is told from Jane’s perspective.  In the film, we never get a scene without Jane.  Mia Wasikowska (and to a lesser but nearly as powerful degree, young Amelia Clarkson) carries this entire film on her shoulders.  Often, in films like these, it’s ninety percent first-person, then the filmmaker caves in because (s)he can’t figure out how to tell an important piece of exposition without cutting away from the established perspective – not here.  We’re always with Jane, and more importantly, we want to stay with her.

Michael Fassbender appears as the story’s Byronic hero, and does so with a humor that makes us love Mr. Rochester but never even approaches the fourth wall, as many period pieces feel they must.  As a friend put it, “Fassbender not playing a douchebag in a military uniform, for once?”  Yes, and it’s magical to watch.  This film’s release was limited, but I’m holding out hope that the two leads will get the recognition they deserve from these performances. Appropriately, Rochester’s apparent love interest, Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots) actually performs one of Lord Byron’s musical pieces.  Everything from the score, the architecture and the atmosphere to the social and scientific assumptions of the time period are retained.  Judi Dench, as usual, is sweet and grandmotherly, and can set the tone of an entire scene with one facial expression (one that comes to mind is the scene in which Mrs. Fairfax first sees Jane and Rochester together).  Jamie Bell also appears as Jane’s cousin (a detail left out in the film), the pious St. John Rivers, who takes Jane in after her unceremonious exeunt from Thornfield.

Fiction writer David Jauss suggests, in his essay, Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life, that we authors of fiction try to write our way into characters whose lives we know nothing about. On paper, we become different people.  In Charlotte’s time, she was writing about herself – Jane Eyre, judging from what we know, mirrors Charlotte as a person in the most striking of ways (often summed up in brusque phrases such as “a woman with a strong heart,” but take from it what you will).  If I may be so bold, I think if Charlotte had lived to see the dawn of film, or hadn’t passed away with an unborn child, she/her descendants would have been more pleased with Fukunaga’s adaptation of the story and Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of Jane than any version of either done before.

It might be worth mentioning that in Charlotte’s time, people were still figuring things out – things like the way sound travels.  In several sections of the story, Jane hears voices, the most important of which occurs when she hears Rochester calling her name and decides to return to him.  In all our romanticizing, we forget that in this period of the world, people weren’t sure this kind of thing wasn’t possible – that you couldn’t hear someone softly calling your name from leagues away.  In this adaptation of Jane Eyre, I promise you’ll hear Charlotte’s, just a little.

Jane Eyre (2011); written by Moira Buffini, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë; directed by Cary Fukunaga; starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.

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