We admire their work, until we want to strangle them.
That’s the way it often goes with those idiosyncratic filmmakers who make their presence known in their work, sometimes in dazzling form and on other occasions in rather abrasive and patience-trying ways. This weekend sees, not one, but two new works by filmmakers many cinephiles love and other viewers love to hate.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is the long-awaited first portion of Danish bad boy Lars von Trier opus about the titular woman and the men who shaped her sex life and, as a result, her rather nihilistic view of humanity. When we first take a peek at Joe (von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg), she’s actually fully clothed, but in very bad shape. She’s laying on the ground in a dark alleyway, the unforgiving snow falling on her banged up body.
She’s spotted by a passerby, and von Trier fans will immediately recognize Stellan Skarsgård playing Seligman, the Good Samaritan who offers to give her shelter. “I’m just a bad human being,” she warns him. Is von Trier tipping off the viewer as well? Is he referencing his own infamous behavior?
What follows is a conversation between both characters divided by chapters that take us into Joe’s past, beginning with with her childhood and making frequent stops on her adolescence and young adulthood. Von Trier is in no hurry to set the austere tone that takes over the screen over the next two hours, and trusts the viewer to share his intellectual inquisitiveness.
Nympho 1 might be many things: oppressive, cerebral, frustrating. The one thing it’s purposefully not is erotic, a curious thing for a movie that features scenes of unsimulated sex. (Body doubles perform all penetrative action, though there’s plenty of full-frontal nudity and touching of genitals on display.) Von Trier does not set out to titillate the viewer or serve up cheap thrills. On the contrary, for all the bare skin and coital shenanigans he stages in typically unblinking fashion, he’s far more interested in exposing Joe’s demons, something he attempts to do from the inside out. The explicit couplings are simply a means to an end. This turns the movie into a tough slog, but one that’s never uninteresting.
So who are the men in Joe’s life? Von Trier begins with her tree-obsessed dad, played, in an outside-the-box bit of casting, by Christian Slater. The one constant who pops in and out of her life in all kinds of contrived ways, however, is Jerôme, played by a game Shia LaBoeuf, who is trying an ill-fitting English accent on for size. The scene in which Jerôme deflowers a young Joe (a captivating Stacy Martin) is rendered with ritualistic rigor, and that, for better or worse, extends to the rest of the rampant sex that follows. Von Trier doesn’t want to elicit joy. If anything, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 revels in depriving the sex fiends in the audience from any sort of carnal pleasure. In that regard, this auteur has earned my admiration, though he remains a difficult filmmaker to warm up to. What do I think of his latest provocation? I spent most of the film’s running time teetering between approval and disappointment, until a pitch-perfect closing scene snaps everything that’s come before into focus. The emotional uncertainty of this cliffhanger bodes well for Vol. 2, which will be released in April.
If you’re not up to taking the plunge with von Trier and his fearless cast, allow me to recommend the whimsical delight that is The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest meticulously crafted contraption from Wes Anderson. The film deserves more column space that I’m devoting to it here, but suffice it to say that, even though it bears all the hallmarks that turn off the Royal Tenenbaums filmmaker, it also features crossover appeal in the form of Ralph Fiennes, truly marvelous here as M. Gustave, the fastidious concierge of a mountainside hotel in the fictional Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka in 1932.
Not so fast, says Anderson. Before we set eyes on Fiennes, he guides us through a series of framing devices. We learn of Gustave through an author, played in the 1980s portion of the film by Tom Wilkinson, who writes about his encounter with Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy Gustave took under his wing, when he visited the hotel in the 1960s as a younger man (Jude Law). In Chinese box fashion, Anderson keeps going further and further into the past, until we wind up in the 1930s. What follows is a tale of political intrigue, set right before World War II, that’s truly delicious at the outset and then, at least for this reviewer, decidedly less so when the action turns increasingly violent.
The mixture of lighthearted humor and morbid is initially bold, but as the bodies keep piling up (yes, Anderson can be a vicious storyteller), my goodwill towards the movie began wearing thin. Fiennes, along with a uniformly terrific ensemble cast, however, save the day. And let’s not forget the top-notch production values, particularly Adam Stockhausen’s production design and Alexandre Desplat’s music score. It might be far from my favorite Wes Anderson creation, but the MVPs he’s working with turn it into a compulsively watchable one.
The Grand Budapest Hotel starts March 21 at several area theaters. That same day, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com)