You don’t want to wake up, do you?Under the Skin (2014)
I’m stating to feel like saying that I like the films of Lars Von Trier is kind of unpopular opinion, but I’m a fan. I absolutely love Dogville and Antichrist and would go as far as saying they were two of the best films of the 2000s. I’m also a fan of Europa and The Element of Crime and would recommend most of his films to the people who I feel could stomach them. I was hotly anticipating (but not in a weird way) Nymphomaniac not only because of the director, but because I think the subject matter has been used effectively to make some fantastic films in the past. Now that I’ve seen this four hour epic, I can say that I think the film is good, but not the director’s best work. This latest film written and directed by Lars von Trier features a huge cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, and Willem Dafoe. It follows the lead character Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin as her younger self) as she recounts her erotic life story to a man (Stellan Skarsgård) after he finds her badly beaten in an alleyway behind his house. Her story is told in chapters, like most of von Trier’s films and tracks her first experiments with sexual desires at a very young age through the rest of her life to the point where she is having sex with multiple men a day every day.
Nymphomaniac is without a doubt the filmmaker’s funniest and most lively film to date. I’m not saying the film is a comedy by any means, but there is a morbid sense of humor underlaying many of the film’s sequences. The situations Joe purposefully puts herself in are sometimes so uncomfortably dark and awkward that you can’t help but laugh a little. Since the film is so segmented it is easy to pick and choose favorite sequences. One of the highlights is a longer sequence where a young Joe and her friend board a train and have a competition to see who can have sex with more men. The winner of their contest wins a bag of chocolate. Another great scene later in the film has Joe looking to have sex where communication is impossible, so she finds an African man who can’t speak english and he and his brother end up arguing in their foreign language about how to have sex with her while she sits on the sidelines. I won’t spoil it, but the way she is framed in one point during the scene is brilliant. The scenes involving Jamie Bell’s character, who plays what can only be described as a sadomasochistic therapist (?). These bits are in the latter half of the film where it is darker and in certain ways more ludicrous (which I won’t get into as not to spoil anything), but Jamie Bell brings a certain quiet, but dominating presence to his role. Finally the best scene of the entire epic is without a doubt the sequence with Uma Thurman as the wife of one of Joe’s lovers, who comes to her home with her kids and melts down in the film’s best performance.
The film is not without problems though. It is not subtle in any way, shape, or form. In some ways I can see that it is on purpose, but for the four hour runtime it doesn’t work, especially since nothing really ever changes. Joe goes through life from partner to partner, from one type of sex act to another, and this goes on and on. After a while it feels like we’ve seen this an hour ago and thats because it did. The framing device of the film is also pretty painful sometimes. It takes us out of the main narrative frequently and doesn’t serve much of a point. Skarsgård often interrupts her and his many digressions feel didactic. He connects her story to fly fishing, classical music, literature, and religion and then goes on to explain these obvious metaphors in depth. It almost feels like the film is holding the audiences hand, which is something I never would’ve thought von Trier would do. Anyone looking for some sort of symbolism that isn’t awkwardly explained through dialogue, would really need to be reaching. If you want to something that uses fly fishing as a metaphor in an actual intelligent manner, watch Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal on NBC, which has is one of the most visually sophisticated films or televisions shows out there. This is so shocking to me that Nymphomaniac is so obvious when Dogville and Antichrist were so challenging and rewarding for the audience.
Does this film need to be four hours long? Probably not. Besides the already unneeded framing device, Christian Slater as Joe’s father ultimately doesn’t serve a purpose in the overall story. He talks about trees representing souls (again people talking about symbolism through dialogue) and it adds nothing to this exploration of sexuality. Shia LaBeouf is better than he usually is, but at the end of the day his character left me feeling cold. One can surmise (but not really “surmise” because it’s once again stated out loud) that the film is commentary on the double standards people have when it comes to female sexuality and how men have been holding women down since the dawn of man, but von Trier never actually strives to make this point during the majority of the film because it’s so ugly. He doesn’t build up the female characters to be anything other than destructive forces that ruin lives. People have accused the director of being a misogynist, but I don’t think he is because I think he hates everyone, including both men and women (in Melancholia he smashed an entire planet into Earth, so there’s that). I say this because as much trauma Joe causes in the lives of others, most the men in the film are cruel and manipulative. For a film called Nymphomaniac, it isn’t as shocking as I anticipated, which didn’t really help any case the film was trying to make. I’m sure the film would shock some general audience members, but a general audience member probably doesn’t know this movie exists (outside of being that film LaBeouf is freaking out while promoting). Antichrist is a far darker, shocking, and better film.
Despite all my gripes, I do like this Nymphomaniac. There are a lot of moments that are fantastic. Uma Thurman’s scene will be one of the best moments in film of 2014. I was shocked to learn that this was Stacy Martin’s first feature, because she is spectacular as young Joe. There are some great ideas throughout, some great performances, and it’s sometimes funny/energetic, but then there are some obvious and over-explained metaphors, tonal inconsistencies, and it’s not a story that should be four hours long (and I rarely complain about length, but I feel there is some sever self indulgence here). This is a good film from someone I consider a great filmmaker and if you’re a fan then I’d recommend it. If you want something that is about similar ideas then I’d highly recommend the David Cronenberg’s criminally underrated 1996 film Crash.
With The Den, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Devil’s Due, Alien Abduction, and Black Water Vampire already out this year, you’d probably think “Oh no not another found-footage film, but here I am reviewing a new one. Though it may be the sixth found footage film I’ve seen this year (all of them have been pretty mediocre to poor with the exception of The Den, which I would recommend), Afflicted is quite the effective indie horror movie. This Canadian flick written, directed, and starring Derek Lee and Clif Prowse follows the two (named Derek and Cliff) as they begin a year long trip around the world after Derek has been recently diagnosed with a disease in the brain called AVM. They plan on filming the entire trip and uploading it to their blog to share their experience with the world. After meeting an attractive woman in Paris, Derek begins showing some unexpected and unusual symptoms (and not the kind of symptoms you’d usually see after hooking up in Paris). He can’t eat without vomiting and soon his skin has extreme adverse reactions to sunlight. As Derek begins looking worse and worse (by “worse” I mean your worst sunburn on roids), the two leads are thrust into a world of horror and make some difficult decisions with no turning back.
The film can best be described as a combination of David Cronenberg’s masterpiece The Fly and Josh Trank’s 2011’s film Chronicle, but stands on it’s own as very creepy and inventive film. A problem many found-footage films have is that when they attempt big effects sequences, the effects don’t look like they were shot on same cameras the rest of the movie has been shot on. That issue isn’t present in Afflicted at all. There are several fairly lengthy chase scenes and one brutal attack on a SWAT team that leave you asking, “how did they do that?”. It’s all very impressive work, especially on such a low budget. What also helps make this film work is that the acting is actually good; something not often seen in this subgenre. These aren’t Daniel Day-Lewis level performances, but they feel natural enough that for a while you could really see these guys making a video blog that you’d actually follow if it were real.
Now this isn’t a film that’s going to make you a smarter human being, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s entertaining, occasionally scary, and well crafted. It’s expertly filmed and really tones down the sometimes nauseating shakiness of many found-footage films. If you’re tired of found-footage films, this film is worth a shot and shows at any subgenre can always keep your interest as long as it’s done right. This is also another film that proves that you shouldn’t go to Europe. If something doesn’t eat you, you’ll probably get taken away to torture factory or some other awful place (Sochi?).