Mar. 22nd, 2014

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There's usually a film or two every year that I feel obligated to watch because it's very high profile and making waves in the critical community, so I feel that in order to stay informed I ought to see it despite having no interest in doing so. Past titles have included things like "Dreamgirls," "The Road," and "Cyrus." 2013 was a great year and there was a flood of good features that I was happy to tackle with relish. I couldn't watch everything, of course, but the things that got left off my "To Watch" list were super obscure titles like Claire Denis' "Bastards" and Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," which weren't really part of any major conversations about film that I was aware of.

In 2014, however, there's at least one film that I know I'm going to have to figure out how to address one way or another, and that's Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac." It's being released in two parts, totaling somewhere north of four hours of screen time uncut. There's going to be a lot of explicit sexuality that I'm not looking forward to, particularly as it's coming from Von Trier, who seems to delight in making sex as cringeworthy as possible. "Volume I" opens in selected cities in the U.S. today, so there have been plenty of reviews in circulation - some good some bad, and some indifferent. However, Lars Von Trier is a major cinema auteur, and I've seen a good chunk of his work, enough to know that I really should see "Nymphomaniac" and form my own opinion about it.

I've had mixed reactions to Von Trier films. I enjoyed and fully endorse "Dancer in the Dark," "Breaking the Waves," and "Melancholia." "Dogville," and his earlier films like "Europa" were middling. I flat-out detested "Antichrist," "Manderlay," and "The Idiots." I have no idea which category "Nymphomaniac" is going to fall into, but the premise just sounds unbearably tedious, and this is from someone who just finished watching the six-hour Mosfilm version of "War and Peace." The length doesn't phase me. The content does to some extent, with the promise of lots of kinky business going on, though I've been assured that there's nothing as gruesome as the final scenes of "Antichrist." Von Trier himself claims that the film is not pornography, and that there is nothing particularly titillating about the copious amounts of sex that he depicts.

Maybe it would be easier if "Nymphomaniac" were just empty, gratuitous sex for four hours, or the trashy erotica that I'm expecting the "Fifty Shades of Gray" adaptation to be. Then I could dismiss it more easily. However, "Nymphomaniac" is supposed to be taken seriously as the newest work from a major filmmaker, and I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that. All the marketing and all the chatter around the film that I've seen so far point to the movie being another Von Trier exercise in shock and awe rather than a mature, grown-up examination of sexuality like, oh, "Last Tango in Paris" or "Eyes Wide Shut" or "Lust, Caution." Sex in Von Trier films tends to turn into a horror show - rape and sex as degradation are way more common than healthy sexual relations - and I don't have much confidence in him changing his approach here, where sex is going to be front and center the whole time. Even if it's not "Antichrist," I expect "Nymphomaniac" to be a difficult watch, to say the least.

I have to say that I am curious about the participation of so many familiar names like Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, and of course, The Beef. Von Trier regulars Stellan Skarsgaard and Udo Kier will be in the mix too. And of course there's Charlotte Gainsbourg as the female lead, Joe. This is her third collaboration with Von Trier, and she seems to be one of his few leading ladies who actually enjoys working with him. And I know that I'll probably get something out of seeing "Nymphomaniac," just as I usually get something out of seeing most of the other films I've had these kinds of doubts about.

Watching difficult and challenging movies is good for us. It gets us to examine and push past our prejudices, to deal with uncomfortable subject matter and the emotions that they stir up. Lars Von Trier films disturb and alienate me because they're provocative and dangerous. And that's why I love some of them too. That's why I keep watching them, and that's why I keep watching films from similar directors like Gaspar Noe, Michael Haneke, Harmony Korine, and Nicholas Winding Refn. These are artists who don't play by the rules, and they're important to acknowledge and engage with.
So I will see "Nymphomaniac." All of it. Eventually. Doesn't mean I have to like it though.
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