Monday, 24 February 2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2014)

The second half of the abridged, two-part cinema release version of Lars Von Trier’s latest work is sillier than the first, requiring disbelief to be suspended from the get go, and shoots off in various disparate directions, but just about manages to keep a sense of cohesion.

The set-up is as before, with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe (the titular nymphomaniac) telling the wild, improbable and very, very NSFW story of her life to Stellan Skarsgård’s passive Seligman. This time we learn rather more about both parties, as these two develop their own relationship quite unlike anything Joe has experienced before.

The stories told are somewhat familiar in tone, though they are certainly not wanting for shock value. In one particular scene, Von Trier frames Charlotte Gainsbourg with a pair of big black penises, while another has young British national treasure Jamie Bell repeatedly punching Gainsbourg across the face, something which elicited a highly inappropriate but probably entirely expected guffaw.

The ludicrous nature of many of the tales told is not shied away from, such as in the scene where Stacy Martin’s coquettish younger Joe seems to draw an entire traffic jam’s worth of male drivers into her sexual maelstrom. Fohnhouse favourite Udo Kier makes his usual appearance for a short comedy scene – whatever your understanding of the game of ‘spoons’ is, it probably is not the same as that which is played here.

Von Trier plays with a trashier aesthetic in this one – it’s all threesomes and surprise lesbianism and gun-toting femme fatales. Willem Defoe appears as a devious crime lord in the concluding tale which sees Joe transform into a heavy for the mob, using her sexual powers as a weapon. As usual, you get the impression that Von Trier is daring you to call bullshit on the whole affair, never more so than in the scene in which Joe finds her ‘soul tree’.

By the time Joe’s past catches up with her future, the magic realism aspect of the film has taken hold, as everything ties together perfectly. The alley in which Seligman found Joe, a Von Trier nowhere place, turns out to be an even more potent space, a literal channel between Joe’s past and present, and even her future. Just where on Earth is this film supposed to be set anyway? Von Trier continues to explore themes he has touched on before, with this magical aspect taken from Melancholia (amongst others), a recreation of the opening of Antichrist (with a happier outcome) and the injection of an element of crime. 

The final moments of the film are rather too predictable, but not unfaithful to what has come before. Von Trier wants to deconstruct human relationships, to reduce everything that we are and do. In some ways we are all of us Joe, damaged by human interaction, but in others we are Seligman, isolated and alone, bound by the theoretical and the terrifying possibility of life. That these two poles must repel is not a surprise, and the film ends with a suitably final rupture.

The bitty nature of this review reflects the fractured form and themes of the work itself. Do I give it five out of five for sheer audacity, or punish the deliberately silly bits? Do I praise the beauty of many of the shots or decry their lack of real meaning. I don’t know. I will probably never know. I gave Melancholia 4/5 because it touched me despite its imperfections. Let’s give Nymphomaniac the same. But it really must be seen to be judged.

Come back soon, Mr Von Trier. Make a children’s film. Do something to really scare us. Just please never get boring – we need filmmakers like you.



Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Dario Argento's Dracula 3D (2012)

Dario Argento used to be a brilliant director. Between 1970 and 1987 he had, in my opinion, a pretty-much unbroken run of wonderful, quirky, scary and beautiful horror films. These included Deep Red, Suspiria (my favourite film in all the world), Phenomena, Tenebrae and Opera. He has continued making films since then, but the quality has been in fairly steady decline. Once or twice his magic has resurfaced, notably in the first half of 2001’s Sleepless and his television work (two episodes of Masters of Horror and fun TV movie Do You Like Hitchcock?), but most people have given up on him ever making something to match his earlier output. Indeed, his last feature film, Giallo, was a terrible mess that seemed to have signalled his final, irredeemable fall. Now Argento is back, with a 3D adaptation of Dracula. Is this the return to form that I and many others have been hoping against hope for? No, unfortunately not. It does, however, show a marked improvement over Giallo.

Two things have particularly scuppered Argento’s recent films – bad writing and bad special effects. Here he has some pretty decent source material, so you might think this first issue wouldn’t be a problem. Well, not exactly. Sadly, instead of going for a straight adaptation, or even a riff on another cinematic take on the novel, Argento and his co-scenarists seem to have gone for broke and tried to create something new from the pieces of many different versions of the story. It gets very messy.

There are one or two interesting ideas in the mix, notably the inclusion of a jealous mistress for Dracula and the addition of a subplot which sees Dracula as a naughty lord of the manor, enjoying bloody droit du seigneur much to the chagrin of the townsfolk. Sadly, both of these potentially rich avenues are (quite literally) cut off before being fully explored. By the time the film reaches its conclusion it has settled on being another version of the resurrected lover storyline (does James V Hart get credit for this or not?), but there is no effort put in to making us feel anything for either party.

Dracula adaptations live and die on the strength of their leading man, and Thomas Kretschmann actually does a fairly good job here. Unfortunately, his performance is diminished by the muddled story. While he is highly effective as a pale, distantly-glimpsed wraith, as well as as a sarcastic and bloodthirsty fiend, he just doesn’t convince as the ‘false note in a divine symphony’ which Dracula at one point claims to be. This is mostly because the film only foists this role onto him in the final act. He valiantly tries to make it work, but time and cheesy special effects are against him.

Yes. Those ‘special effects’. I don’t know what possessed Argento to turn Dracula into a giant CGI praying mantis, but it was surely a fouler fiend than any to be found in this film. It isn’t even the (admittedly ludicrous) concept, or even the naff graphics. It’s the colour. There really isn’t anything scary about a glowing green mantis. Perhaps if it had been left in the shadows, its bent form in semi-darkness (as in a memorable early episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), it might have come off, but as it is it is stupidly incongruous. The opening shot is also a foolish mistake. Argento was once the king of the roving camera, creeping over houses and trees and swooping around opera houses, but here the film starts with flight around a rubbish CGI town that reminded me of a Windows 95 screensaver.

Big name guest star Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing is all business, with none of the theatricals of Sir Anthony Hopkins or the quirk of Edward Van Sloane. While he might well have been doing it for the paycheque, Hauer phones it in like nobody else, and brings appropriate gravitas to the role. Once again, though, the story is against him. We don’t understand anything of his history with Dracula, bar one flashback which poses more questions than it answers, so their final confrontation doesn’t carry the weight that it should. Dracula addressing him by his first name, rather than suggesting intimacy, simply sounds out of character for someone otherwise so impeccably polite.

Character interaction is certainly one of the biggest flaws here. Something Argento has always done well is pairings – from Karl Malden and James Franciscus in Cat O’Nine Tails to Max Von Sydow and his parrot in Sleepless, via David Hemmings and Dario Nicolodi in Deep Red. Here there are a good number of pairings promised – Dracula and Jonathan, Lucy and Mina, Dracula's mistress Tanja and Renfield, Van Helsing and the priest – but none of them come to anything.

Overlook its many faults, however, and Dracula offers some enjoyable morsels. While the acting is patchy, this is nothing new for Argento, and nobody is as bad as Adrien Brody in Giallo. One or two of the lines are nicely powerful, though perhaps unwittingly so. Tanja’s quiet ‘I’m not quite sure what I am’ suggests that she could have been one of the more interesting characters in the film if more care had been taken with the script. There are moments which show Argento’s eye for composition; a quick flash of red reminding us that he used to be the greatest director of colour. A brutal massacre livens things up and allows for some nicely old school gore, cheap but effective, while a dream sequence is actually quite unsettling.

It isn’t going to gain Argento any new followers, but Dracula has rekindled the hope in my heart that with the right script Argento might still bring us a film worthy to stand near, if not quite beside, his early masterpieces.



Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (2014)

What to do if you are Lars Von Trier? Antichrist got people up in arms back in 2009, with its penetration, genital mutilation and (for some) questionable gender politics. Then Melancholia, a far gentler film, was overshadowed by his bizarre outburst at Cannes that year (calm down, Lars!). Named festival persona non grata and refusing to give any more interviews, it seemed unsurprising that his next work announced was a hardcore pornographic film. I mean, why not?

What is perhaps surprising, then, is how soft this film feels. While there is no end of naked flesh on show, the literary framing device renders it all somehow palatable, even banal. Bookish loner Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying bleeding in the snow and takes her in. In order to help him understand what happened, Joe tells him the story of her life, revolving around her nymphomania, desperate to make him see her as a bad person.

This marks Von Trier’s third collaboration with Gainsbourg, and the magical number three is everywhere in evidence. From the diegetic references to the devil’s note, or tritone, and ménage à trois, to the three poundings which remove titular nymph(o) Joe’s virginity. There are actually five more, but five seems to be a fausse piste…unless three is the fausse piste and none of it means anything. More important, though, is the trinity formed around the story through narrative, narration and narrator.

There is Von Trier in Skarsgård’s passive listener, trying to promote a philosophy of ‘if you have wings, why not fly?’ but finding himself increasingly shocked by Joe’s revelations. He even gets in a little dig at those who don’t differentiate between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

As the storyteller, Gainsbourg gets little to do, but is still the perfect mouthpiece for Von Trier’s oddly jarring dialogue. Playing teenage Joe, British actress Stacy Martin gets more meaty stuff: she impresses both on her own merits but also in convincingly playing a young Gainsbourg.

Other actors don’t get much to work with and have varying degrees of success. Shia LaBeouf looks the part, but his English accent is fairly dire. Christian Slater’s is better, and his small role is quite touching. Best of the guests is Uma Thurman, absolutely wonderful as a cuckolded wife in a scene which veers between hilarious and horrible, dark and silly.

Elsewhere, this feels like a celebration of Von Trier’s interests – we have a voyage through his favourite cinematic landscapes: the hospital; the damp, oppressive non-spaces; the forest. We have extremes of emotion played out in microcosm. Everything is just that little bit abnormal. A scene of sexual adventure on a train is somehow haunting, as all his best work is.

The film here reviewed is the first part of the four hour, two-part cut, which is being released in cinemas (eventually we will get Von Trier’s five-hour version, complete with extra hardcore scenes). In this version, there is a cliffhanger that leaves us – like Seligman, like Joe herself, even – desperate to find out what happens next. I don’t feel able to give a score to a film as yet unfinished. I want to know how it ends.