Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (director’s cut)

The 5½-hour uncut and uncensored version of Lars von Trier’s controversial film is smooth but hardcore and stronger than the sum of its parts.

nymphomaniac-directors-cutDenmark
4*

Director:
Lars von Trier

Screenwriter:
Lars von Trier

Director of Photography:
Manuel Alberto Claro

Running time: 325 minutes

This review complements the separate reviews of the two volumes:
– Nymphomaniac: Vol. I 

– Nymphomaniac: Vol. II

The long-awaited director’s cut of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac has everything audiences were promised at the outset but didn’t get when the two shortened volumes were released separately. In this very lengthy version, more than 80 minutes have been restored after an outcry from the director and a wave of interest from viewers who were intrigued by what they got to see the first time around. The final cut, although still presented in two parts with their own final credits, is surprisingly strong, even as we can see why many of the shots were cut or scenes trimmed.

First of all, it has to be said that the editors on the shortened versions did a remarkable job paring the 325 minutes of the director’s cut down to around 240 minutes. Their work can only be thoroughly appreciated now that we can compare the two cuts with each other, which both convey the same story as before and have a remarkably similar focus.

The film is still a story-within-a-story, and it opens with the middle-aged Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) being discovered bloodied and beaten up in a London alley by the lonesome book worm Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Seligman takes her back to his place to recuperate and asks her what happened. She proceeds to tell him all about her life of loneliness, love and lots of sex, and how she ended up getting exactly what was coming to her, as she fatalistically suggests.

Out of the two volumes, the first, which covers most of Joe’s years as a teenager and a young adult, had far less footage cut (around 30 minutes) than the second (almost a full hour), and indeed it is not always easy to point to new material. There surely are standout moments, such as a depiction of the god Odin in the ash tree (the Norse world tree) that Joe’s father tells her about as a young girl, or the much extended sequence at the hospital while her father writhes in agony as he leaves this life.

There are other moments, too, that are rather easy to notice, and it is equally understandable why the editors removed them. These include, for example, two shots in the train that show Joe’s friend Bee followed by a conquest, to underline Joe’s frustration at not having the same success at hooking up. In the shorter version, there is only one shot, and the scene is significantly shorter. The same is true later on, when both girls pretend to be heartbroken in order to tease comfort from the male passengers in their respective compartments. In the shorter version, we see only how Joe went about this performance. The cuts served to narrow the focus to Joe rather than the event in its holistic sprawl and were very effective. We also got much less of Bee’s elaborate recounting of one of her sexual episodes to a group of promiscuous young women who call themselves the “little flock”, which serves no real purpose in the director’s cut.

Although it took out very little material, one of the most significant cuts becomes apparent in “Chapter 2: Jerôme”: In the short version, when Joe decides to deliver a love letter to Jerôme, her boss, who also took her virginity when they were both teenagers, she arrives at his office only to find he has left with his secretary. In the longer version, we see two scenes in which Joe shares her feelings with the secretary and is told that she should deliver the letter on a specific day, which turns out to be the day they leave together.

These specific scenes add much greater depth to Joe’s character, as they depict a kind of longing or yearning for Jerôme that was not as evident in the shorter version, and ultimately these moments elicit more empathy for her from the viewer.

The largest chunk of new material in the first volume forms part of the black-and-white “Chapter 4: Delirium”, in which Joe’s father dies. While the shorter version did make an impact, the effect was much weaker than it is now, as we get a much firmer sense of unconditional love between the father and daughter, and his ultimate demise is truly affecting.

In general, however, the most obvious difference between the two cuts is the quantity of full frontal nudity, as there was a modest amount in the edited version compared with the copious number of male members, often presented in close-up, entering a variety of holes – one of which, we now learn in this latest cut, Joe calls her “Pandora’s box” – in the director’s cut. Particular mention has to be made of Von Trier’s unexpected use of the Proustian idea of the madeleine (wholly absent from the edited version) after a graphic scene of oral sex performed on the train, which before had been heavily cut.

We also learn her father left her his caliper, which they used to measured leaves with. These two details tie in with subtle indications of incest later on in Vol. II, as the caliper features in a self-performed abortion scene, and Joe flips through her book of dead leaves shortly before she starts to touch herself.

The abortion scene is a showstopper. It lasts (or feels like it lasts) an extraordinary amount of time and was completely omitted from the shorter version of Vol. II. It is without a doubt the most gruesome and grisly scene in the entire span of Nymphomaniac and is one of the most wrenching scenes I have ever witnessed on film, right up there with Irreversible’s head-pulverisation with a fire extinguisher and the climactic sequence of misery at the end of Requiem for a Dream. And yet, while a conversation between Joe and Seligman about the pros and cons of getting an abortion is too long, the act itself – in which Joe uses some of her medical training (shown here in a few restored shots in Vol. II) to expel her foetus with, among other things, a knitting needle and a clothes hanger – is as powerful as anything you will ever see on film.

Another scene in Vol. II that is much longer now is the “sandwich”, or the three-way sex scene between Joe and two very well-endowed men from somewhere on the African continent, which is the film’s only scene that unquestionably falls into the area of pornography.

A film that lasts 5½ hours will either draw us in and make us feel like we are a part of the world of the story or annoy the viewer with the feeling that time is standing still. In this case, while the film’s “present” is only one night, the events recounted last many decades, and thanks to a plethora of sexual adventures and a comparable spectrum of philosophical and socially relevant discussions, the film is never static.

The energy of the relatively quick succession of events in the shorter version has dissipated, but the more ample information we get now is always interesting, even when it seems entirely tangential. One odd shot, however, which may or may not have been in the shorter version, is of a mirror inside Seligman’s apartment. In an inexplicable moment of obliquely breaking the fourth wall, Von Trier’s camera appears in the mirror for a longer-than-brief period of time when this object is shown to us. What this overt manifestation of the author inside his own work implies is not at all clear, but with topics ranging from the Fibonacci numbers and sexual polyphony to Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, perhaps these just add to the elusive quality of this work that simultaneously appeals to and repulses us (a bit like the suffering and the joy that relate to the Western and the Eastern Church, respectively, in the film), and whose intended meaning we may never grasp in full.

The director’s cut (of which Vol. I was screened at the Berlinale, and Vol. II premiered at the Venice International Film Festival) smoothes out the rough edges of the dialogue scenes between Joe and Seligman in the short versions, presents us with too many giant trouser snakes to count and emphasises the beautiful rapport between Joe and her father that made for the one truly unblemished relationship of her life.

Von Trier, whose first language is not English, fails to engage us with many of the smaller roles, whose actors often sound like they are reading their lines, but all the main parts are admirably played, and Uma Thurman in particular is absolutely captivating in her role as the wife who loses her husband to Joe’s lustful escapades. Unfortunately, the director’s cut has no additional footage for their unforgettable confrontation.

The cynics might say this strategy of teasing viewers by releasing two films before releasing their “final cuts” less than a year later is all a marketing ploy on the part of director Von Trier, who has worked in the industry for long enough to know how things work. That may well be the case, but neither the story he tells nor the way he tells it have changed substantially, and whether viewers get to see the shortened or the original longform version, the experience ought to be one of great fun and pleasure that also leads us to deeper questions, not only about sex, but about our lives as human beings. And that certainly cannot be said for any other film that features this much nudity (although the fans of Last Tango in Paris may disagree). It may not be as coherent – and driven by a strong central issue – as his magnificent Manderlay, but the talent, intellect and yes, provocation, of Von Trier is unmistakable. 

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (2013)

Lars von Trier’s sexual two-parter comes to an end with great violence but not nearly enough pleasure.

nymphomaniac-vol-iiDenmark
3*

Director:
Lars von Trier

Screenwriter:
Lars von Trier

Director of Photography:
Manuel Alberto Claro

Running time: 125 minutes

This review complements two other reviews of the film: 
– Nymphomaniac: Vol. I 
– Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (director’s cut) 

The last time we saw Joe, she was writhing between the sheets, but in a way different than usual: The erogenous zone between her legs had become nearly insensitive, and she could no longer reach orgasm. Obviously, for the title character of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, this is as bad as it gets.

In the first volume, Joe told the story of her rampant sexuality – mostly in bed, but almost everywhere else, too – to the kind stranger Seligman. There was her at a young age stimulating herself by sliding face-down on the wet bathroom floor, and then hooking up with strangers on a train in a face-off with her best friend who had equally promiscuous goals. She fell in love with the boy who took her virginity and kept meeting up with him throughout her life, until he eventually became the cantus firmus in the polyphony of her sex life, as so memorably demonstrated by a three-part split screen accompanied by Bach’s “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” chorale prelude for organ.

This second volume, in which the story continues, is much darker in tone than the first two hours, as it focuses on the consequences of Joe’s loss of sensation. The principal consequence is that for some reason she becomes less vigilant about using contraception and ultimately falls pregnant. At first, she takes care of her son, Marcel, but with the constant absence of her husband who travels on business, and her tumescent desire to reach orgasm once more, she embarks on an odyssey of discovery that involves sadomasochism and ducks.

We wouldn’t have put it past him, but fortunately Von Trier spares us any mention of bestiality. The ducks in questions are not quacking (an insert that provides the biggest laugh in the film) but silent. For those not in the know, hiding the “silent duck” is the sexual act of fisting.

It is a young man called K. who hides the silent duck and is an expert at a number of additional techniques to inflict terrible pain on Joe that leave her body bruised and battered, and in one case, her buttocks bleeding as the flesh is torn out of them in a way that Von Trier explicitly links with the Passion of Christ.

These scenes, violent as they are, are nothing compared with the darkest part of the film, which takes place on a parallel track and cleverly uses Von Trier’s otherwise insufferable 2009 film, Antichrist. It involves Joe’s gradual isolation and rejection of family life and leads to two stomach-churning scenes with the infant Marcel. For those who saw the opening sequence of Antichrist, a comparison with the events in this film, and the relationship between Joe and Jerôme in particular, will be very insightful.

Those who have seen Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom are also in for a last-minute surprise, although Von Trier’s reference isn’t as solid as the one to his own film.

While it certainly wasn’t Von Trier’s intention with Nymphomaniac: Vol. II to make an “enjoyable” film in the conventional sense, it isn’t as riveting as its predecessor either, and it is an easy stretch of the metaphor to say the pleasure of Nymphomaniac arrived all too prematurely. The many different tangents on which the director went off in the first film were almost always surprising and often both ridiculous and thoughtful at the same time.

Here, however, Seligman loses the plot as he finds ever more obscure historical or literary counterparts to the situations and the characters in Joe’s autobiography, at one point leading her to exclaim it one of his “weakest digressions” yet. We learn a little bit more about him, but like the single scene of Joe’s work environment, the glimpse is far from satisfactory. And yet, as Von Trier did earlier in the story with his antics about the Fibonacci numbers, our patience does pay off, as the events unfolding behind a black screen toward the end of the film can be illuminated by earlier revelations of Seligman’s character.

Nymphomaniac has presented film critics in particular with the opportunity to dissect its pornographic intentions. It was a topic I briefly dealt with (and mostly rejected) in my review of the first instalment of the two-part film. Vol. II hands us a different club to beat the director with, and this one is not only more appropriate but more brutal. It is the violence performed against women.

Sadomasochism generally, and even in the particular case of this film where there is a mutually agreed-upon – but for the viewer utterly distressing – absence of “safe words”, means there is consent for things to happen that would otherwise give rise to lawsuits of battery and assault. Von Trier films the instances of S&M violence committed against Joe in a way that never sensationalises the event but maximises our discomfort and even disgust.

In so doing, he cannot be labelled any kind of deviant or misogynist but rather a filmmaker who knows how to get us to squirm without recklessly stumbling across the very apparent ethical minefield. He manages the same feat later on when Joe faces a man whose urges would be criminal, not to mention incontestably monstrous, if acted upon, but both Joe and Von Trier neatly draw the line between victim and aggressor, in the process surprising us by revealing, in this and the previous situation, human beings behind what at first seemed to be thugs.

Nymphomaniac, Vol. II is quite different from the first film in terms of tone and doesn’t keep our attention as easily. Seligman speaks too much, the chapter headings become a bit contrived, and the story-within-a-story simply becomes tiring. As the lead, Charlotte Gainsbourg seems chronically depressed, both in the present and in her flashbacks (she takes over here from Stacy Martin, who played Young Joe in Vol. I), and her demeanour infects our experience.

Von Trier continues to frustrate his audience with odd choices of characters and sudden narrative twists, but there is no denying his Nymphomaniac is unlike anything he or anyone else has done since the days of Dogville and Manderlay, and these are all the films of a master filmmaker.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)

The first instalment of Lars Von Trier’s sweeping sex film keeps surprising us, and not just in the ways you might expect.

nymphomaniac-vol-iDenmark
3.5*

Director:
Lars von Trier

Screenwriter:
Lars von Trier

Director of Photography:
Manuel Alberto Claro

Running time: 120 minutes

This review complements two other reviews of the film: 
– Nymphomaniac: Vol. II 
– Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (director’s cut) 

Vastly overhyped because of its supposedly controversial sex scenes starring famous actors and actresses, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. I delivers a story whose shock value is actually rather toned-down compared with the director’s previous work. It is, however, the best film he has made since Manderlay in 2005.

For theatrical distribution, Von Trier’s opus was cut from a rough cut of 330 minutes to around 240 minutes, neatly spread out over two films.

As with some of his previous filmic outings, most notably Dogville and Manderlay, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is structured like a novel, with five onscreen chapter heads clearly dividing the film into separate sections. The impetus for this may be the book on angling that sets the story in motion, or it may be a more orderly way of working through the clutter of one woman’s seemingly never-ending sequence of sexual encounters.

The middle-aged woman, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, called Joe, is found bruised and battered in an alleyway one night by the caring stranger Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes her home when she asks for tea and milk instead of an ambulance. He puts her to bed and asks her what happened.

She pointedly answers that she is a bad person, but with a little persuasion, she starts recounting her life story, from her childhood through her teens and into young adulthood (in the flashbacks, her role is played by Stacy Martin). In the process, there is talk of masturbation, sexual incantations and hypersexuality, but also of fly-fishing, Fibonacci numbers and Bach.

The film oscillates wildly between the profound and the preposterous, sometimes in the span of a single sentence, as a serious conversation about one’s hesitation to enter a door that has just opened leads to a close-up of a cat suddenly disinterested by the door that has opened in front of it. It is interesting to note, however, the closed-up hole in Seligman’s front door where a cat could have entered in the past.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is interested in both showing and telling, as we get seemingly superfluous depictions of concepts – from onscreen math during a sex scene to an illustration of the angle necessary to parallel park successfully while this action is being carried out correctly, seen from God’s point of view – as well as a very extensive discussion of the interconnectedness of sex and more mundane everyday activities.

It often seems like Joe and Seligman are talking past each other, before the connection slowly reveals itself. But we have a nagging feeling that something is not quite right. Kind as Seligman is, he does too many things that remind Joe of past incidents, and his interests in the Fibonacci numbers and in fly-fishing all too quickly help explain Joe’s actions to herself.

Is Seligman real? There is some discussion about delirium tremens, the potentially fatal condition of abstaining from alcohol if one has been addicted to it, which leads to horrifying hallucinations. Could Joe’s abstinence from sex have led to a similar form of delirium tremens in which she discusses her life with a complete stranger who seems so connected to her?

It is not entirely improbable, but we will have to wait for Vol. II to get a clear answer.

In the meantime, let us entertain ourselves with the question whether this is pornography, as some in the media are bound to suggest.

The answer, not resoundingly, but firmly enough, is “no”. Some may find the sex scenes somewhat stimulating, but whatever graphic imagery the film contains is brief and limited in nature. And even when there is nudity, it is usually more scientific than sexy. Compare this with Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle: Chapitres 1&2), in which lingering takes gave us blow-by-blow accounts of sex scenes between its leading ladies, or with Von Trier’s own, much more explicit The Idiots (Idioterne) from 1998.

While determined not to fall in love, which would mean sex more than once with the same person (an appalling notion to her mind), Joe does eventually have sex, at least twice, with a young man called Jerôme. It must be said here that the man playing the part, Shia LaBeouf, is a charming actor, but his British accent is atrocious and does great damage to our willingness to take him seriously.

What Joe’s uncharacteristic amorousness spells for her future, we will probably learn in Part II, but by the time the film’s end credits roll, and we are treated to snippets from the sequel (which mostly assure us that there will be countless more scenes of her masturbating), we are deliberately left confused as to the meaning and the relevance of all of these stories. Also, Joe says she has a full-time job, but we never see her doing any job except the obvious one.

We do see – and hear – a lot of talking, and although some viewers may nod off during some of the very inexpressive Gainsbourg–Skarsgård interactions, they will be rewarded in good time with some clever application of different fields of interest to the woman’s sex life. These dialogues often seem too overtly written and staged, and Von Trier certainly could have been more succinct, but at least we quickly realise time is not wasted (except for a rather tedious black-and-white chapter with Joe’s dying father).

Lars von Trier, as magnificent as he has proved himself to be in the past, has recently had his head stuck in the clouds in a very public way. His tawdry Antichrist, most famous for its close-up of Gainsbourg cutting off her clitoris with a pair of scissors, concluded with perhaps the most ludicrous and inappropriate dedication in the history of film: to the late Russian filmmaker and master of the sublime, Andrei Tarkovsky. So, too, in Nymphomaniac, Vol. I, he continuously tries to establish a link between his own film and the other big “sex film” of the recent past that was equally vastly overhyped because of its supposedly controversial sex scenes starring a famous actor and actress: Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

The director links the two films by making repeated use of the most famous sound bite from Kubrick’s film, the gorgeous “Waltz No. 2” from Shostakovich’s “Suite for Variety Orchestra”. But whereas the music boosted the lush, colourful dinner parties of the former, the music in Von Trier’s mostly desaturated picture only serves to draw on our knowledge of Eyes Wide Shut without digging any deeper.

Despite its awkward transitions and an incomplete storyline, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is easy to watch, and time passes remarkably quickly. Uma Thurman, who only stars in a single scene, is unforgettable in her role as a cuckquean, and the chemistry between LaBeouf and Martin is awkward, riveting, and sometimes a little humorous – qualities that make their scenes all the more enjoyable.

This is a promising first part of a two-part story, but a unified film would have been much better. However, although that black-and-white chapter seems entirely out of place, the pieces fit together surprisingly well, even if the hype promised more than the film could ever have delivered.

In Your Arms (2015)

A man in his mid-30s, ravaged by disease, decides to end his life while encouraging his nurse to start living her own.

in-your-armsDenmark
3*

Director:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm

Screenwriter:
Samanou A. Sahlstrøm
Director of Photography:
Brian Curt Petersen

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: I dine hænder

Euthanasia is not an easy topic to wrap one’s head around, particularly because it is so often conflated with murder. When so many people are not even ready to accept suicide as a legitimate action, it is to be expected that euthanasia (the patient sanctions someone to kill him/her), or assisted suicide (the patient kills himself/herself with medication or counselling provided by a second party for this purpose) will be equally challenging notions for an audience. 

The Danish film In Your Arms, co-produced by Lars von Trier, is more of an intimate character study of a man who has decided to end his life than a critical examination of the moral or ethical issues surrounding or arising from this decision. In this respect, the film is a mostly sober representation of one man’s determination to eliminate the suffering that plagues him, instead of a dramatic contrivance that would involve our emotions. But it doesn’t make the audience’s job of empathising with the character easy at all.

One way in which the slight distance between the viewer and the film is achieved is through the use of snow. Symbolising a great number  of things (from ephemeral beauty to peace to a state of being untainted by the heartache and the natural shocks that flesh is heir to), snow accompanies a number of scenes, some of them potentially mere mental images, but at least one, which involves a brutal killing by a blubbering killer, is very real.

The film is centred on Niels, a man in his mid-30s whose body has been degenerating of late and is mostly paralysed. At the nursing home where he is experiencing a great deal of self-pity and has asked his family to stop visiting him, he tries to kill himself. “I can no longer walk. I can no longer masturbate. And soon I will no longer be able to breathe”, he says, and it is easy to understand his desire to put an end to this rapid, inexorable regression.

However, to his horror, he is saved by a young nurse, Maria. Anxious and terrible at any social interaction, she cleans herself by washing her armpits at the wash basin, and most of the time her pale face is taut as a drum. Even when she makes spontaneous decisions, there is no visible joy or passion in her expressions. Niels is not impressed, but although he always has sharp words at the ready for those around him, he needs help to get to Switzerland and end his life through an assisted dying organisation titled ASSIST. Having nothing better to do, now or ever, Maria sets off on the trip to accompany him.

This middle stretch of the film, which is a kind of road movie, is the most interesting part of the story, although it is at times very difficult to watch. The reason is right there in the producer’s credit, as the awkwardness Von Trier has long relished and made most palpable in The Idiots is also on display here. Niels gets a thrill by digging into Maria’s personal life and asking her about it, even when he knows that she finds these conversations excruciating. He also is not beneath embarrassing her in public for no good reason other than oblique self-pity.

We gradually realise that, as he approaches the hour of death, Niels is also grabbing on to his last moments of control in the midst of despair and apparent disarray. He tries to pull Maria out of her shell while he kicks up a fuss when she doesn’t do everything exactly as he orders her to, even if such orders are sometimes contradictory. He has good intentions, and Maria, who is afraid to look in the mirror, both literally and figuratively, would certainly be better off if she were socially better connected. Unfortunately, any assumption that these two characters who don’t fit into society would easily communicate all but blows up in our face, even though they rather pathetically hurtle into each other’s arms in the final act.

The big problem with the depiction of Maria is that the character is sobbing in nearly every single scene. She cries when she feels uncomfortable, she cries when she doesn’t have an answer, and she cries when life happens. She shows no sign of maturing or of dealing with her social and personal hang-ups, has very little development to speak of and is wholly incapable of being around people.

In a film that deals with euthanasia, the scene dealing with this topic in particular will illuminate the director’s talent as a storyteller, and here Samanou A. Sahlstrøm chooses to end his end his story not with lyricism but with extended discomfort. The process of dying by one’s own hand is almost never pretty, and while Sahlstrøm presents the character’s good-byes to his friends and family with great empathy, the act of suicide is filled with unpleasant hesitation, gasping, sniffling and anxious anticipation for the end to arrive sooner rather than later. While tough to watch, this final scene admirably undercuts any notion of this being a straightforward sanctioning of ending one’s own life.

Death very well spells the end to life, but even amidst the beautiful scenery of Switzerland, the transition from animate to inanimate is far from cheerful, and despite the many scenes with the snow that also signals a heavenly bright light, perhaps this example of the end of life pulls us back into the gritty realism that real death commands.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God ForgivesDenmark/Thailand

2*
Director:
Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenwriter:
Nicolas Winding Refn
Director of Photography:
Larry Smith

Running time: 90 minutes

Luis Buñuel’s 1929 short film, Un chien andalou, is well-known for one good reason: In a close-up, it shows a human eye sliced by a razor.

In Only God Forgives, cult director Nicolas Winding Refn references this image — in full colour — at the climax of a scene that sees a man lose not only his eyes, but his ears, his arms and his legs as well, all in near-silence, except for the constant, piercing scream of the victim.

Despite a torrent of violence and most scenes bathed in deep red by either blood, red neon lights or both, Refn maintains a curious and alienating distance from his characters, which means we don’t much care for these individuals who are under constant threat of execution by the sadistic blade-wielding policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Chang is one of two enigmatic central figures responsible for the many sordid incidents of blood loss. The other is Julian, a big drug smuggler in the Bangkok underworld, played by Ryan Gosling, who also starred in Refn’s widely beloved but overhyped Drive.

At the beginning of the film, Chang is called to the scene when a 16-year-old prostitute is found dead in Bangkok. For some inexplicable reason, her killer, an American named Billy, has decided it would be a good idea to stay behind. The girl’s father seeks revenge, and Chang allows the man to beat Billy to a lifeless pulp.

But then, suddenly, Chang turns on the father and pulls a sword from behind his back (which doesn’t, however, impede his ability to chase a criminal at full speed down the road in another scene later in the film) before slicing the man’s arm clean off.

It turns out Billy is Julian’s elder brother, and when Billy dies, their ice-cold mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) flies into town to demand justice be served.

These early scenes are soaked in red light, which would seem seedy if the visual metaphor of blood wasn’t so ridiculously obvious. The stone-faced Julian, who says little and expresses even less, is unwilling to avenge his brother until his mother forces action from him through emotional manipulation wrought by a personality verging on that of a dominatrix.

The film oozes with style, and the ambiance of the opening act is electric thanks to the dozens of crimson-cloaked objects highlighted by the deep shadows that envelop them. There are hints of film noir, for example the meshwork of shadows that outline the jasmine rays of neon as light is cast through a cement barrier, but without a narrator or a serious femme fatale, the film doesn’t take advantage of the genre.

As he did with Drive, Refn dedicates Only God Forgives to Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose El Topo and The Holy Mountain were Surrealist explorations of spirituality. Refn doesn’t do much with spirituality, but the surreal brutality of his work, amped up even from the grisly acts of Drive, is clearly a point that connects the two filmmakers.

A few moments in the film do stand out as particularly impressive. One is a scene in which Julian points a gun at the man who killed his brother, who emotionally confesses to the crime but does so in complete silence, as the music on the soundtrack is the only sound we hear.

Another scene of spectacular filmmaking is the big fight between the otherwise expressionless leads, Chang and Julian, which is accompanied by a Cliff Martinez composition that mixes music produced by an organ and a synthesizer. Unfortunately, Refn’s insistence on inserting multiple push-ins on a statue of a man fighting is as annoying as the statue is irrelevant.

While the images may suggest artifice, the characters are even worse, with barely a hint of an arc between them. Julian is calm and silent (Gosling has fewer than 10 lines of dialogue in the entire film), even though he is supposed to be an important figure in the drug trade. Crystal could potentially be a source of great amusement, as she verbally decimates an unsuspecting hotel receptionist upon her arrival in Bangkok, but she ultimately doesn’t push back against the dark lord of the narrative, police officer Chang.

Chang seems to be a villain of steel, who dodges bullets and fights like a god. He is simply invincible, and despite the single scene of him and his young, tender wife, we get absolutely no sense of his thinking and have no idea what drives him.

Refn’s visual creativity is not consistent, however, as is made obvious when some menacing characters, killers for hire, arrive on the scene in slow motion — which apparently somehow should accentuate their wickedness.

Only God Forgives tries to seem artistic by composing beautiful images and an interesting soundtrack that at times calls to mind the work of Ligeti, but its story verges on being one-dimensional, and it is difficult to care about any of the characters. It seems to enjoy the scenes of its own brutality, including when a long metal spike is pushed right through someone’s ear drum, but the film has no interest in presenting a story worthy of our attention.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

The Inheritance (2003)

Denmark
4*

Director:
Per Fly
Screenwriters: 
Per Fly
Kim Leona
Mogens Rukov
Dorte Warnøe Høgh
Director of Photography: 
Harald Gunnar Paalgard

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Arven

It is regrettable that I have come to associate Danish cinema too readily with the work of Lars von Trier and his Dogme brothers-in-arms. There are many other films from this small country that are (at least) equally capable of tugging at our heartstrings, and Per Fly’s The Inheritance is one of them. Along similar lines, one may look to Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding (Efter brylluppet), released in 2006, a film whose images, like those of The Inheritance, were exquisitely lit and filmed with handheld cameras.

The Inheritance is set up as a tragedy from the start, and the film’s bookended structure is perhaps the only element that is worthy of harsh criticism. Director Per Fly makes it very clear from the start that Christoffer and Maria are no longer together, but as a result he eliminates the tension that might have resulted from a linear telling of the story. After the opening scene, the film cuts to three years earlier (although, over the course of the film, the math doesn’t work out: It is in fact longer than three years), and we see the couple happy together in Stockholm. The rest of the film would show us the deterioration of their relationship and, since we know how it will end, the film removes any hope of a successful resolution to the drama. This indication of a tragic outcome is mirrored in the plays performed by Maria, who is a theatre actress at the Royal Dramatic Theatre: At first, she stars in comedies, As You Like It and The Twelfth Night, and as the story develops, she becomes involved in a production of Shakespeare’s tragic Romeo & Juliet.

Ulrich Thomsen, who is cast as Christoffer, is an actor I’ve seen twice before, as the ice-cold white-collar terrorist in Tom Tykwer’s The International, and a decade earlier as the emotionally damaged central character of the first Dogme film, The Celebration (Festen). The Inheritance provides him with a golden opportunity to show his range, for his is not a simple character: As the only son of the family patriarch and big business man, his mother sees him as the natural successor to his father’s steel company, even though he had distanced himself from the operation years earlier because of the pressure. When his father commits suicide at the beginning of the film – a bad omen for anybody who contemplates the idea of taking over his job – he is shoved into the limelight by his mother and Nils, the chief financial officer, even though his brother-in-law Ulrik had, for all intents and purposes, been the second-in-command. But when Nils tells Christoffer that Ulrik has been spreading rumours about him and his mother tells him that Ulrik doesn’t have the talent to take over from her late husband, Christoffer feels it is his duty to captain the ship. In the process, his marriage gets torn apart.

The film’s depiction of the business world is relentlessly bleak, and while this world does have its benefits, even the most faithful employees sometimes need to be sidelined. Christoffer’s first act as managing director of the steel company is effectively a betrayal of his own wife: He goes against the decision he took with her moments earlier. And these betrayals, justifiable as they might be in the business context, have terrible consequences for human relations. Slowly but surely Christoffer is pulled into the world that he had sworn he would never (and later, only temporarily) be a part of.

The film does jump around from one point on the timeline to another, but in general the flow is consistent enough for the story to feel like it is developing at the appropriate pace. Per Fly handles his actors with great insight and manages to convey the correct image of the most important figures without resorting to clichés.