Saturday, March 22, 2014

THE MORALISM OF LARS VON TRIER

About once every decade or so, a major filmmaker attempts to make a film whose subject is wholly sex. Bernardo Bertolucci did it in 1973 with LAST TANGO IN PARIS. Stanley Kubrick gave us EYES WIDE SHUT in 1999. And now, Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier has created a two-part movie entitled NYMPHOMANIAC. (The first part hits movie theaters yesterday, a day after the second installment arrived on VOD. The first installment has been on VOD since March 7.)
Charlotte Gainsbourg in NYMPHOMANIAC.
It’s a daunting task to attempt something profound about a subject as personal and intimate as sex, but Von Trier has managed to make a serious movie about it. Yes, it’s outrageous at times as he unflinchingly shows the facets of its varied practices. More often than not however, the film is an incredibly thoughtful and spiritual one. And there’s nothing wrong with Von Trier’s predilection for provocation. But once again, just as so many times before with this artist, certain folks in the media are in an uproar. Surprise, surprise.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker goes on and on about Von Trier’s excesses (http://nyr.kr/1dyAmXD). He seems put off by the fact that Joe, the female protagonist (played by the veteran Von Trier player Charlotte Gainsbourg as a woman and newcomer Stacy Martin as a girl), seems so joyless in her exploration of sex. But that is precisely the point of Von Trier’s film. This story is about a woman for whom sex has become a passionless proposition. She’s become immune to its pleasures after so many partners and deviations that she no longer feels anything.

The provocative posters for the movies.
Throughout, Von Trier argues for sexuality that has a deeper intimacy than mere penetration of the body. He’s arguing for a connection that inhabits the heart, mind and soul. Still, some critics can only see the excesses of the visuals – namely the body parts Van Trier shows unflinchingly, as well as the scenes showing BDSM practices. To me, such critics simply cannot see the forest for the trees here. (You can argue there’s a pun in there somewhere if you want to.)

Regarding Joe’s venture into sadist sexual activity, it is indeed difficult to watch. Seeing anyone’s backside ripped by a lash, whether its Patsy’s in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, or Joe’s here in NYMPHOMANIAC, is trying. Still, that doesn’t make Von Trier a misogynist for dwelling on it or in asking us to ‘feel the pain’ along with her. Nor does it make him a pervert or a freak as too many are suggesting (http://bit.ly/1gRiRGz). He may be a provocateur in his way, but the true daring of Von Trier’s work is in the attempt to seriously examine a person’s sexuality. And he succeeds at that here, across the span of the 4 plus hours of his two movies. Von Trier is willing to show the good, the bad and the ugly, without pulling his punches, or dare I say, whips.

Director and writer Lars Von Trier.
Von Trier is clearly interested in subjects that most people are uncomfortable with, and good for him and us. We need more movies that truly challenge us. And despite his pushing the visual limits of cinema, what he’s really pushing here is the idea that sex needs more connection beyond physical arousal and stimulation to be truly exceptional. By the end of the movie, Joe realizes that the most truly intimate and satisfactory moments in her life haven’t been in all the lust and risk, but rather in the intimacy experienced in telling her tale to the kindly gentlemen (Stellan Skarsgard) who’s taken her in. It’s honest conversation, not coitus, which has brought her the truest sense of wholeness. By describing her sex life to him, and speaking candidly about her experiences when probed by his curiosity, the morose Joe realizes that her vast resume of pleasures of the flesh has left her void of true intimacy. So despite all the claims otherwise, Von Trier’s true agenda here is moralistic.

I’d also suggest that his cautions about the vagaries of bad sex, and the limits of such intimate falsehoods, extend far beyond our sex lives. These days we’re all trying to connect and yet we’re doing so in ways that reek of illusion. We have thousands of friends on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn; we text hundreds of messages a day to our family and friends; we post everything we see and do on Instagram, Redditt and Pinterest; and we live and work in a global community where we’re as close as the next Skype call to anyone anywhere. And yet how truly connected are we? Is it better to have a thousand friends on Facebook or a handful of friends you really share your lives and likes with? And do so, in person? That answer is obvious, yet elusive.
Stacy Martin makes an auspicious film debut as the young Joe in NYMPHOMANIAC.
But the blogosphere and much of the media would rather bellyache about seeing Gainsbourg’s pubic hair or Shia LeBeouf in the buff. It’s like the collective freakout that so many pundits and talk shows had this week upon learning that a Duke University student was moonlighting as a porn star to put herself through college. Online smut is as commonplace as those omnipresent University of Phoenix ads that pop up everywhere, so nobody should be outraged that an 18-year-old girl has gone into the industry to make a quick buck. It’s not the safest form of show biz, nor is it great for furthering a reputation, but it’s not that outlandish in this day and age by any stretch.

But that didn’t stop Piers Morgan on his CNN show or Sherri Shepherd on THE VIEW from totally condescending to her like she was a Manson girl. It didn’t prevent TV’s Doctor Drew Pinsky on HLN from telling Belle Knox (that’s her porn alias) that if he were her father he’d take a cyanide tablet. Luckily, the 18-year-old acted more mature in her defense of her choices than the celebrated psychiatrist did in his dismissal of her. If she’s so awful, why was she even on the program, Dr. Drew? And isn’t he calling the kettle black after the non-stop diet of lurid that his show fed us during the salacious Jodi Arias trial last winter?
Belle Knox on PIERS MORGAN LIVE.
There may be more to the story of Belle Knox than what she is willing to admit. And the world of pornography is strewn with awful stories of those who thought they were in control of things when they weren’t. But the media reaction was far more egregious than her actions. Especially when stories about Putin and missing airlines are ten times more disturbing and worthy of coverage as news.

So, why is there such over-the-top outrage for movies like NYMPHOMANIAC and Belle Knox? Is it because in both the film’s story and the Duke tale, the protagonist is a woman? Perhaps a woman taking responsibility for her sexuality and pushing it to extremes is just too much for some to take. Particularly men. And is it possible that those same men are severely discombobulated when a woman acts with bravado too similar to that which we so often applaud in men? A man who sleeps around is called a playboy. A woman who does so is deemed a slut or whore. That is the true outrage.

If you pay heed to all those yelling foul about Von Trier’s movie, you’ll miss a smart, daring film by one of the world’s top filmmakers. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see anything by Lars Von Trier than another mediocre rom-com or horror show or robot adventure. The scariest thing about those types of movies is that their kinds of mediocrity are churned out with such utter frequency these days. The scariest thing about NYMPHOMANIAC is that it asks us to show up for an adult-themed film and pay attention to an artist's words and pictures. At the end of the day, you’ll have to decide which trip to the theater gets your blood pumping.

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