Rocco (2016)

In this documentary, one of the world’s most prolific porn actors, Rocco Siffredi, is mostly clothed but comes across as a professional lover and a congenial husband and father.

RoccoFrance
3*

Directors:
Thierry Demaizière

Alban Teurlai
Editor:
Alban Teurlai
Director of Photography:
Alban Teurlai

Running time: 105 minutes

Boogie Nights kept us guessing until the final shot about the true size of its central character’s money-maker. Rocco, by contrast, opens with a close-up. There’s no mystery about the extent of his endowment and thus very little reason to keep the viewer in suspense. The titular Rocco, whose full nom de porno is Rocco Siffredi, has starred in around 1,500 porn films during his three decades in front of the camera. He may just be the most famous porn actor that has ever lived and is about to retire. It is very disappointing, then, that this documentary detailing his departure from the world of XXX only scratches the surface and does its utmost to avert its eyes from the prize in more ways than one.

Born with the surname Tano in 1964 in the town on Ortona on the east coast of Italy, perhaps the most phallus-shaped countries in all of Europe and complete with gonads, Rocco recounts how – even as a young boy – he felt such a fire between his legs that he started masturbating at the age of just 9. His mother caught him but gave him a complicitous smile of permission. And he has never looked back. At least, that’s the way he tells it.

Today, despite his brutal on-camera pounding of a bevvy of young women, many of them from Eastern Europe, Rocco also has a family: two clean-cut teenage sons and their mother, Rózsa, who has been with him for more than 20 years. His cousin, Gabriele, has also been his lifelong production partner at their Budapest studios. Unfortunately, Gabriele appears to be unprofessional at best and senile at worst, coming up with ridiculous narratives for the films while Rocco’s (and the target viewer’s) pure focus is whether there will be enough sex. At another point, Gabriele forgets to hit the record button.

And yet, through it all, Rocco appears to be the most laid-back guy in the world. He has no real social barriers and handily makes out with most of the girls during the casting sessions. Most notable, however, is the precision with which he questions his future sex partners as he seeks to determine exactly what they are willing to do – or rather, have done to them. Rocco does not hold back during sex and fills every one of his partners’ orifices with brutal force. A few early scenes are particularly shocking because we see the hot post-coital showers expose bloody and blue bruises on butt cheeks.

The interviews with Rocco reveal a man seemingly without a care in the world but with a firm connection to his late mother. He says he carries her photo with him wherever he goes. By the end, however, the final product is too fulsome to be credible. We get the briefest of glimpses of his family, but if Rocco has any friends we don’t see them. The various people who do drift in and out of his life are never introduced, and the third act, which never recovers from an absurd detour into the English countryside, is stunningly weak.

This final act, which mostly takes place in Los Angeles on the set of what is allegedly Rocco’s swan song as a porn star, is lengthy but flaccid. James Deen, in some ways the Italian Stallion’s American counterpart, particularly with regard to the aggression he brings to his sexual encounters, is Rocco’s co-star, but for whatever reason he is not interviewed, which leaves us with more questions than answers. The slightly bemused look he shoots in Gabriele’s direction speaks volumes, however, and the sentiment is one the viewer easily identifies with.

If humanising its subject was the goal, the film is more or less successful. While we get little insight into either his day-to-day life or his thoughts on the many decades of fame and fornication, the image that Tano/Siffredi projects is one of kindness, sincere emotion and a persistent hunger for buxom female flesh. However, if telling a story with enough detail to answer our most nagging questions was Rocco‘s other goal, it fails (just like Gabriele when he tried being a porn actor) to rise to the occasion.

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. 

Love (2015)

An epic film about obsession, rutting and a lot of fluids (once shooting straight at the viewer), but nothing about love.

love-gaspar-noeFrance/Belgium
2*

Director:
Gaspar Noé

Screenwriter:
Gaspar Noé

Director of Photography:
Benoît Debie

Running time: 135 minutes

An ode to genitalia, vigorous rutting and the release of bodily fluids, Gaspar Noé’s Love is the polar opposite of Michael Haneke’s similarly titled Amour. For one, its two main characters are immensely unlikeable: Instead of two octagenarians who have spent a lifetime together and are reaching the end of their lives, we have here a chronically oversexed American named Murphy and the “love” of his life, Electra, who satisfies him provided he is not already pounding away between someone else’s open legs.

Love has little to do with the intense emotions suggested by its title and is rather an examination (albeit superficial) of sexual obsession, with the filmmaker intent on showing the audience as many graphic details as possible. Murphy’s tool shoots his life essence as often as possible – at one point directly in the direction of the viewer, who might be catching the film at one of its 3-D screenings. If this were exciting and not laughable, it may have qualified as pornography, but as things stand, this is much worse than most kinds of triple-X entertainment.

The poster of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) appears on the wall of the main characters’ apartment, for no particular reason except self-interest (it is one of Noé’s favourite films), and maybe because it serves as a kind of reminder that we should view this material as controversial but worthwhile, too.

That is difficult to do, as the very thin story is barely worth a discussion, except for the inclusion of the hardcore sex scenes, which appear to be unsimulated, and in which full penetration takes place at least some of the time. Unlike a film such as Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, however, there is no underlying interest in seeing these characters growing closer before they grow apart. Noé focuses on the stagnant relationship, held together by bouts of mostly routine sexual intercourse, and he does not allow us to experience any elation or regret at the rare developments we are witness to.

The film’s first shot recalls the heady, steamy days of Catherine Breillat’s Romance X, as we look down vertically onto the naked bodies of Murphy and his wife, Omi, nearly immobile except for them slowly using their hands to bring each other to orgasm. When the moment comes, as it were, Omi laps up Murphy’s juice. This surprisingly explicit action immediately takes the viewer aback, because such a scene is not at all an everyday occurrence in the cinema, at least in theaters without sticky seats.

Noé, perhaps best known for his brutal examination of love, assault and revenge in Irreversible (Irréversible), here intimates, through his main character who is a film school graduate, that movies should be about “blood, sperm and tears”, and this film lives up to the expected trio of fluids.

But even more copious than Murphy’s seed is his use of the dreaded c-word to cuss out Electra, who is right to suspect he is cheating on her with any girl that shows a passing interest in having him inside her. We simply cannot care one little bit about Murphy’s meltdown, even though the film seems to suggest that this is the only story that is of any interest.

The film’s major flaw, and there are many to choose from, is that it does not enable us to empathise with its main character. Even worse, we are not particularly interested in him or his way of thinking, because his actions appear to be primitive, and although far from unexpected, his betrayal of his girlfriend is despicable.

The acting is terrible, and especially the scenes of high melodrama, namely the shouting matches between him and his girlfriend, are laughably amateurish. Contrast them with the break-up scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and you will quickly see what these scenes are supposed to look like if they are to have even a shred of credibility.

Noé, whose unconventional use of the cinematic medium in both visual and narrative terms was laudable in Irreversible, here tries to imitate Jean-Luc Godard’s physical manipulation of the medium by adding black-screen flashes to the entire film, which are not only irritating but pointlessly exhibitionist and silly. Early on in the film, we also get a splashy, full-screen-text definition of Murphy’s Law, because, you know, the main character is called “Murphy”.

And then there is director Gaspar Noé’s masturbatory references to himself. Not only is Murphy’s son named “Gaspar”, but Murphy’s ex hooks up with an “artist” named Noé, played by – you guessed it – the director himself. These names are repeated often enough for us to recognise what Noé is up to, but we never get close to understanding why he is behaving like such a neophyte. Who, except the most amateur of filmmakers, would engage in such ill-conceived grandstanding?

Because of their unconventional nature, the unreserved depictions of sex often harm whatever serious intent Noé had with his story, and some of the particularly graphic moments elicit laughter instead of compassion. This film had no reason to be. Its director obviously thought people would get a kick from unsimulated sex, but unlike Lars von Trier’s amazing look at sex in the double-volume modern-day masterpiece Nymphomaniac, Noé’s film is a fluff piece that has as much to do with love as with serious filmmaking, which is almost nothing at all.

Sexual Tension: Volatile (2012)

Tension sexual volatilArgentina
2.5*

Directors:
Marcelo Mónaco
Marco Berger
Screenwriters:
Marcelo Mónaco
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title:
Tensión sexual, Volumen 1: Volátil 

Didier Costet, who co-produced Beauty, a 2011 film in which a middle-aged man from rural South Africa stalks one of his daughter’s male friends, is also the production muscle behind this anthology of short films about gay attraction. Only two directors took part in this project, which accounts for the generally homogeneous tone, one that is usually missing from anthology films with a larger variety of voices and visions.

The two directors are Marcelo Mónaco, who has helmed raunchy films from the sexually explicit Porno de autor to the gay porn film Cum-eating Rancheros; and the more commercially oriented Marco Berger, whose films, like Ausente, have dealt much more with tension and lust than sexual release.

While Berger has stated in the past that he is often conscious of making gay films for a straight audience, Sexual Tension: Volatile is very clearly targeted at a gay audience, as the tension is not really between the characters but rather from the side of the viewer, who wonders whether there will be a spark between two characters, even when such a turn of events would be narratively implausible.

The anthology consists of six short films:

Ari, by Mónaco
El Primo (The Cousin), by Berger
El Otro (The Other), by Mónaco
Los Brazos Rotos (Broken Arms), by Berger
Amor (Love), by Mónaco
Entrenamiento (Workout), by Berger

Each is around 15 minutes in length, and the film ends on a very playful note, just as the tension is about to be broken.

The opening short is very silly, with a young twink who goes to get his first tattoo falling in lust with tattoo artist Ari and fantasising about him. The tattoo parlour looks like little more than an empty studio, and the fantasies are nothing to get excited about.

It is only by the time of Berger’s short film, El Primo, that we can sense it might be worth our time to watch the entire compilation; in fact, this may be the best film of the entire bunch, although Mónaco’s Amor comes a close second. The object of affection is a boy who never speaks (something that can work wonders in a film of this length), but whose crotch outline seems to be everywhere the lustful visitor (Javier De Pietro, who has matured physically and professionally since his stint in Berger’s Ausente) casts his eyes. Berger’s films are often interested in crotch outlines – in swim trunks (“Platero” in another anthology film, Cinco; and Ausente) or in underwear (El relojPlan B) – and have become a trope in his canon. De Pietro, who sometimes pushes his glasses back up his nose to see better, conveys some nervous energy, and in this case his expressionless face helps the film a great deal by allowing him to act as a screen for our projection of anxiety.

El Otro demonstrates that Mónaco can produce some gorgeous moments, as two best friends Kevin and Tony talk about their sexual escapades. Kevin is complaining that he isn’t getting sex from his current girlfriend, but Tony, having just seen what a big member his friend is sporting, wants to help him out by showing him positions and suggesting phrases to help things along. The catch is, Kevin has to try it on Tony. The actions are not always credible, and neither is the blocking, but there are two long takes, both two-shots, that look beautiful and show directorial promise, even though the camera more often objectifies the two boys completely by focusing on their crotches throughout.

Los Brazos Rotos is a bizarre inclusion and seems too artistic – even for a gay audience! There is no dialogue, although only the arms of the main character are (more or less) supposed to be broken, and not the soundtrack. Berger shows his cinematographic range, as he did in El Primo, by playing more with shadows and darkness than co-director Mónaco; however, shots like the one in the bathroom, which shows a man being washed by his male nurse while we look at it in a mirror, with a bottle of shampoo strategically placed to obscure our view of his private parts, seems almost amateurishly titillating. We only realise the intimacy of the situation afterwards, when the nurse does, but while it is going on, you may just want to hit the fast-forward button.

Amor certainly has the best-looking pair in the entire film. At a bed and breakfast in the countryside, a youthful man and girlfriend are escaping dreary city life by sleeping in late. When she is on the phone to her mother, she asks the manager of the place to wake up her sleepy boyfriend, but in the bedroom the two accidentally touch each other, without being repulsed by it. It is a beautiful, innocent moment that creates tension and questions, none of which is properly resolved, but these issues don’t seem at all misplaced.

Berger’s final film, Entrenamiento, sees two men very interested in building muscle spend all their time together. At first, we may think they are boyfriends, but they soon start sexting with girls who demand to see more and more skin. When they take pictures of each other, from up close, we question their sexuality even more. However, as in all the other films, no one is ever shown to be hard, so perhaps the situations are as sexless as they seem, and it is only the viewer whose tension the title refers to.

This is the first volume in what is supposed to be a series, and a second collection of shorts, titled “Violetas”, about attraction between women, was released early in 2013. What the title’s “volatile” means in this case is wholly unclear. All the crotch shots are probably meant to entice us, but that would make this a kind of porn, without the sex, and that’s not really any fun, is it?