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.

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.

Anomalisa (2015)

Charlie Kaufman continues his quirky quest to understand the human soul by deploying stop-motion animation.

anomalisaUSA
4*

Directors:
Charlie Kaufman

Duke Johnson
Screenwriter:
Charlie Kaufman

Director of Photography:
Joe Passarelli

Running time: 85 minutes

Michael Stone is big in Cincinnati, for what it’s worth. He is recognised the moment he checks into the city’s “la-di-da” Al Fregoli hotel, as a former flame describes it. Said flame is comically named Bella Amarossi (a very deliberate maiming of the word “amor”). But before we get to her, let’s back up a second to Michael Stone. Stone is a star in the world of customer service and has arrived in Cincinnati to deliver a major speech on the topic; after all, he has written a bestselling book titled How May I Help You Help Them?

Stone is the star of Anomalisa, a stop-motion animation film set in 2005 that marks writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s return to the director’s chair after one of the best début (and arguably one of the most imaginative) films ever made: Synecdoche, New York. Voiced by David Thewlis, the middle-aged, more-salt-than-pepper character is stuck in a world where everyone has the same lily-white voice (one that belongs to Tom Noonan) and different shades of the same face. Everywhere he goes, people have different names, even different genders, but the same voice every time. That is, until he meets Lisa.

Lisa is an anomaly, and Stone cannot believe his luck that he has found such a diamond in a place as uninteresting as Cincinnati, where people cannot stop talking about the city’s zoo and chili but have absolutely nothing else to recommend. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings her voice to Lisa’s body (it is perhaps a tad disappointing the voice again belongs to a white woman, and the film would have been ever more buzzworthy had it been a little more inclusive), who vividly brings the shy introvert to life.

Before Stone meets Lisa, however, we are treated to a hilarious establishing opening act in which he is haunted by and ultimately faces the woman he dumped for no good reason 10 years earlier, in 1995: the aforementioned Bella. Bella has put her life on hold and never forgiven Stone for leaving her just when they were at their happiest together. Their meeting in a public area is as pitiful as we expect it to be, and Kaufman’s dialogue gleefully thrashes around with cringe-inducing moments of awkwardness that will have many in the audience in stitches.

It is after he gets back to his room on the 10th floor, takes a shower and looks into the mirror that his jaw literally drops: He hears a voice different from all the others, which seemingly causes his cheek to detach from his face – albeit just momentarily. He rushes out of his room, and after knocking on many other door in the corridor, he finds Lisa, a customer service rep who has come all the way from Akron to hear him speak. When she opens her mouth, her voice is like magic to his ears.

And yet, the film does not pretend that these two are meant for each other in an otherwise dreary, hopeless world. Instead, it digs deeper, very subtly, to direct our attention towards the likelihood that even the most marvelous of experiences – falling in love – can be reduced to crass ephemerality within moments. It is in this process that Kaufman, as he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, again shows us his cynical curiosity about people’s actions and the way they are tied to our psychological states of mind.

Take the name of the hotel, for example. Most of the film is set inside the fictional Al Fregoli Hotel in downtown Cincinnati. Names in Kaufman-scripted films are often subtle nods at a wider range of references, and in this case Fregoli undoubtedly refers to the Fregoli delusion or syndrome, a condition that leads people to believe that someone they know changes disguises on a regular basis, instead of realising they are all different people. The connection to the material in this film is obvious although (fittingly) not a true incarnation of the disorder.

The quality of the film is superb, and while the dolls’ faces are deliberately crude, they move about elegantly. Such grace is even more pronounced in the cinematography, as the camera often slowly zooms in on action taking place, and sometimes there are multiples layers of action in a single shot, for which the choreography and the direction are almost too complicated to get one’s head around.

Anomalisa is unlike almost anything else you will have ever seen before. It cleverly draws laughter from the most uncomfortable of situations without ridiculing those involved. It gently reveals the complexity (as well as the humor and the tragedy) that accompanies the act of falling in love. And it has a sex scene that is filled with the clumsiness and uncertainty but also the innocence and desire to satisfy and be satisfied that the first sex act with a new partner often entails.

Although the story is sometimes painfully thin (much of the film takes place during a single night) and some scenes last much longer than they ought to, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson successfully mine the material for laughs while keeping their collective eye on the ball that is human emotion. This may not be at the same level as his previous works, but Kaufman’s voice remains one that stands out from the others, and for that we should all expect to fall in love with his work again and again.

Shame (2011)

Steve McQueen’s second film is all about one man’s sexual desire and what he does to get what he craves.

shame-mcqueenUK/USA
3*

Director:
Steve McQueen

Screenwriters:
Steve McQueen

Abi Morgan
Director of Photography:
Sean Bobbitt

Running time: 100 minutes

He looks them up and down, everywhere he goes: women, men, couples – they all find him seductive. He goes after them, and he gets what he wants, every time.

Shame is the story of Brandon Sullivan, a young executive who is the poster boy for unapologetic hedonism until he is confronted with the more serious demands of intimacy from two women in his life: his sister and a co-worker looking for more than a fling.

In one of the first scenes of the film, Sullivan watches a young woman sitting opposite him on the New York subway. She returns his gaze, clearly enjoying the attention, though trying to hide her excitement in this public space. At the next stop, she gets up and grabs onto the pole next to him: She is wearing a wedding ring. But he doesn’t relent and instead pursues her down the tunnels of the underground.

Brandon is physically in very good shape, clean-cut, well-coiffed, with a good job downtown and an apartment near Gramercy Park in Manhattan, but the ever-present windows and glass dividers separate him from the rest of civilization. He is used to being in charge of his life, and especially his sex life: He prefers to pay for sex in his own apartment or seek it out in public spaces, where people can be easily discarded, but never permits a greater measure of intimacy. When he is not out in bars looking for fun, he sits in his spotless apartment and masturbates in front of his computer screen. He is young and enjoys one-night stands and the general remoteness of his sex partners, sometimes a world away in front of a webcam.

He is forward without being aggressive and plays off his good looks and charm; he knows how to speak to a woman, and almost always he benefits from a comparison with his womanising boss, David. David compliments himself as a way to pick up girls, while Brandon compliments the girls themselves and is much more successful than his pal, even when David is the one doling out one pickup line after another.

Brandon’s bachelor lifestyle is upended, however, when his drama-queen sister, Sissy, arrives to stay with him for a few nights. Not only does she invade his privacy and walk in on him while he’s polishing his family jewels in the bathroom, but she represents a genuine attack on his licentious way of living. The very first evening at his place, she spends hours crying on the phone while she speaks to her boyfriend, telling him how much she loves him. It goes without saying this is the kind of debasement of which Brandon would never allow himself to be a victim.

The relationship between Brandon and his needy sister is evidently a toxic one, and there are hints of a traumatic childhood that are never elaborated on. The tension between them is made all the more agonising by the use of very long takes, one of director Steve McQueen’s trademarks. We know this situation won’t end well, but until the end we have no idea where all of this is headed.

One reason for our disorientation is the structure of the film. At various intervals, McQueen expertly weaves together two, sometimes three different storylines and timeframes to create a mystery guided by our impressions. These obscurities are sometimes quickly resolved and add another level of slight discomfort to the proceedings on-screen.

Shame is McQueen’s second feature film, and while it is in many respects more conventional than his début masterpiece, Hunger, in which Michael Fassbender (who plays the lead in Shame) starred as the Irish republican Bobby Sands, the director doesn’t nail the material the way one would have expected. Technically, the film is beyond reproach, but unlike Hunger, which is set almost entirely inside the Maze prison outside Belfast, the technical aspects of Shame do not engender an experience capable of encompassing an equally flaccid narrative, this time set all over New York City.

There are moments of cinematic grandeur, but the film is also the victim of the director’s fear of explaining too much, and, in the end, too much is left unsaid and unshown. That is a real shame.

Sparrows (2015)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s second feature film provides an emotionally resonant look at a teenage boy’s coming of age on Iceland’s majestic Westfjords peninsula.

sparrowsIceland
4*

Director:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Screenwriter:
Rúnar Rúnarsson
Director of Photography:
Sophia Olsson

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Þrestir

The first time we see the teenage Ari’s face, he is singing in a 28-boystrong choir in Reykjavik. The hall in which they are performing is stately and white as snow, and as the rays of sunlight hit his neck, we see what appear to be light tufts of down. This boy is still very much an innocent angel, and although he will mostly remain that way for the duration of the film, the situations he is confronted with become ever more complex as he gradually learns what it is to be a man.

Sparrows (Þrestir), Rúnar Rúnarsson’s second feature film, doesn’t cover the usual bases of a coming-of-age story. Yes, in this case there is a divorce, an absent father, his first sexual encounter and so forth, but Rúnarsson’s perceptive eye for teenage politics in general and the loneliness of an outsider in particular, as well as frequent dips into melancholia that wash over the pale, almost inexpressive face of the main character, make this a wonderful glimpse of one boy’s life in the wilderness.

Said wilderness is Iceland’s Westfjords, the country’s large peninsula to the northwest, where cliffs rise up sharply out of the ocean and appear to be much more imposing than their actual height would lead one to believe. The town where almost all of the action is set is the hamlet of Flateyri, although shots of nearby Bolungarvík also make up the fictional town here. Everyone here knows each other, but this familiarity is worlds removed from Ari’s former life in the capital with his mother, who has now upped and moved to Africa with her Danish husband.

In spite of the talk of hunting, the fighting and the sex, it ultimately becomes clear to Ari that being a man does not mean being macho. Being a man does not even mean one has to be responsible. However, it does entail dealing honestly with one’s own shortcomings, and that is why the film’s final image – an intimate hug between two men – is ultimately so incredibly powerful. On three occasions, the ethereal sounds of a piece of music by Kjartan Sveinsson lift Sparrows into the realm of the transcendental, flawlessly complementing the religious songs that Ari sings on multiple occasions, including, most strikingly, all alone inside a giant water tower. His solos bring almost heartbreaking calm to the turmoil that we know he is experiencing on the inside.

The film has countless small moments that are not highlighted but stand firm as milestones that line Ari’s journey towards maturity. While there will be a great deal of focus on a particularly traumatic scene late in the plot that will have the viewer’s stomach churning with empathy, other smaller incidents are equally important. Ari’s father, Gunnar, who has drowned his sorrows in alcohol since divorcing Ari’s mother, is ill-equipped to take car of his teenage son on the cusp of adulthood but out of sorts in this new landscape. Every moment that Ari considers unique is somehow spoiled by his father who has a similar moment with other characters, from having sex with the same woman to sharing a jacuzzi and even the house with too many other people.

Throughout the film, the towering cliffs – their feet often shrouded in mist – are ever-present, seemingly about to overwhelm the insignificant figures in the foreground. In fact, our very first impression of the area is a shot of the tiny airplane flying almost too close along the fjord walls before landing at the airport in Ísafjörður. This image is followed almost immediately by a shot of Ari waiting for his father, as he has done for much of his life, at the arrivals gate.

While main actor Atli Óskar Fjalarsson is very good, the only letdown is the scenes when he is supposed to express violent rage, which unfortunately comes across as somewhat contrived. This issue is perhaps understandable given that these moments turn very sharply away from the general trajectory of the plot and the overall restrained behaviour of the character. The quieter scenes, of which there are many, are much more convincing and more effective at drawing the viewer in close to Ari.

Sparrows are never seen nor spoken of, but the title most probably refers to the small birds because of their biblical meaning of being among the smallest and least valuable of animals while nonetheless still cared for and watched over by God. While this explanation is informative, it is unclear why the title takes the plural form.

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?