OCC Blog 614

Radical Rehab

We’ve been talking about Lars Von Trier’s “Nymph()maniac” Vol. 1 & 2.

When Von Trier’s predecessor, C.T. Dreyer, placed his camera in the homes of Danish Luthern’s in the early 1900’s he was dissecting an emotional tumor in the prudish mentality of a bygone day. Von Trier sets his lens on the same view of the opposite end of the spectrum, our modern, sex-forward culture. His characters are no longer hounded by sin and forgiveness but by obsession and repression. A Christ-like character, the compassionate fisherman and good-Samaritan, Seligman, rescues Jo from lying beat in the street. It must be Christ himself that Seligman emulates. He’s a virgin and claims never to have met a bad person in his life. He turns out to be one.

With a protracted digression. at the mid-point of the Vol. 1, about the schism between the eastern and western Christian traditions, Seligman connects sex and religion and Von Trier finds an eloquent visual impression with which to introduce it. In this case he does with the solitary eastern orthodox icon of the Madonna hanging on the wall behind where our modern day harem girl and eunuch are arguing. Without wasting dialog, the filmmaker is commenting on how the iconographic trends in the ancient sacred arts have been hijacked in the presentation of modern movies and he draws a comparison between Madonna and the girly pin-up in one skilled stroke.

The icon and pin-up were one-in-the-same when they debuted on the cave walls that sheltered our earliest ancestors. Humans are compelled to fetishize, ritualize and sanctify the human reproductive process. It’s almost as old as the act itself. Ironically, it is the male and female organs on parade, not the persons having sex, that make modern porn what it is. What we see carved and painted in stone caves and on the modern porn screen is essentially the same content. Our taste hasn’t changed since the dawn of history. The ritual, visually speaking at least, revolves around the genitals. Because that pathway in the brain is so primitive, its going to appeal, in vastly different ways of course, to the widest range and largest number of people.

With this new movie, Von Trier is not making porn. He couldn’t even appeal to the writer at the small town independent newspaper that rebuked him. The reviewer I read, anyway, castigated Von Trier as if he’d pushed the gross-out film to new heights. I admit, that some of this movie was very hard to watch. You want to push back somehow. One way, I suppose is to label it perverse. The movie reviewer that I read did just that to “Nymph()maniac,” still, I seriously doubt  he was even conscious of all the people he was insulting with his cry of misogyny.

He is implying, to name just one of the other artists involved, that Charlotte Gainsborough, the star of Vol 2 is diseased. I don’t see any evidence of it in her history. The leading lady in this movie made her name playing burly roles for women. I would think she took this job to expand her chops and meet a challenge with some other artists that she respects.

Von Trier is not breaking particularly new ground in these scenes of degradation. The tradition can be traced as far back as the late silent era classic, “Haxan” (1922), and hails from Von Trier’s home country by the way as well. The soil of cinematic excess is further amended with Pier Paulo Passolini’s “Salo, 120 Days of Sodom.”(1975), one of those movies about excrement that I already named. That film offended my senses a great deal more than “Nymph()maniac.”

There is some parallel being drawn intentionally by the director between himself and his protagonist in this film. I wonder if this is Von Trier’s attempt to make amends; not apologize, but answer for some trouble he got himself into with certain mischievous remarks. 

One of the thrills supplied consistently by Von Trier is his penchant for wit and sarcasm when he knows he’s being quoted. He fancies himself like Oscar Wilde and this trait often devolves, over time, into a lust for controversy. The press scoops it up and prints it. Who is the nymphomaniac here? The press, audience or director? Whoever remains least satisfied, of course.

I’ve written about how some filmmakers worship the female form and archetype with their films. Ironically, some of the same one’s reputations are tainted by scandal for doing the opposite. Misogynistic scenes have gotten other filmmakers in trouble in the past, so Von Trier must have anticipated the hot water he’s plunged himself into with this one. He knows history tends toward extremes.

Judging from the outcry, movies such as these serve to prove that social restrictions and taboos, are not at risk of being loosened when they are scrutinized in the arts. On the contrary, they are reinforced. Is it because Lars Von Trier has brought so much surprise and novelty to modern movie making that he is being singled out for his depictions of misogyny?

Martin Scorsese’s most successful movies graphically portray a woman being physically abused by a man and it is usually her husband. So, if we say the guy that whips the stuffing out of Jo in “Nymp()maniac” Vol 2 is her husband, will that bring the movie back in line with acceptable standards?

The stakes are quadrupled in Vol 2. Jo returns for punishment repeatedly, under her own power. This is not domestic violence. No one hurts her without her consent. Excuse me, but isn’t this is a slightly softer position than domestic violence. Aren’t Jo’s circumstances, if we were to come across them in real life, superior, in theory anyway, to those of say Ginger’s in Scorsese’s “Casino”? So, rather than being an unwitting victim of someone’s abuse, Von Trier’s heroine puts herself there and he gets called for misogyny?

The small town free press film reviewer who’s review I read said the end of this movie was totally predictable. On thing for sure, his reaction was. I felt sympathy. Watching Jo’s predicament unfold to that extreme extent made me fret that suicide would end her story. I was glad to be wrong about that.

I hate some of the images in this movie. It makes me sick to think of such things but I suppose that’s the point in showing them. If the reviewer I’m referring to saw that Jo’s ordeal on screen, in any way, condoned the torture of women or, in any way, rewarded the exploits of nymphomania, then that was his movie not mine. The story I watched flat out warns us that violence breeds violence, as we watch Jo seesaw from being the punished to punisher in Volume 2. In the movie I watched, the protagonist finally learns to accept herself for what she is. That was not a predictable ending for me. It made sense afterward, but I was surprised. Of coarse we don’t know what exactly happened, in the end because it happened in the dark.

While that movie reviewer that I disagree with and I, as well, have had our rear ends in chairs and our eyes glued to screens, either writing about or watching films, Von Trier and his company and others like them, have met, agreed to organized, prepare, craft and release a feature film. They chose a story with a social dilemma at its core, just so we can identify and talk about critical dysfunctions, like the effects of misogyny in our society.

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