Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and the art of sex

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Charlotte Gainsborough features in one of only two stills released for Nymphomaniac

Lars Von Trier’s two part film Nymphomaniac is not even out yet but it’s already one of the most talked about and anticipated releases of 2013. Shia LaBeouf‘s comments to a  journalist last year that the sex in the film was going to be unsimulated has more than raised eyebrows: it has provoked an outpouring of condemnation from film fans, with some slamming the film as ‘just’ porn even before a trailer has been released. Trier is planning to release two versions of the film; an explicit cut and a softer cut, and with breakout star Stacy Martin in a recent interview discussing the use of porn doubles, there is no doubt that this film is intended to and will shock. Sex is now a staple of the contemporary cinema experience and unsimulated sex is not exactly new; Trier’s last film Antichrist featured unsimulated sex in the first scene, so what’s all the fuss about? Is there a place for for this type of expression in mainstream modern cinema?

Free speech, sexual expression and pushing the boundaries of social norms has always been at the heart of the moving picture industry. In the 1920’s the conservative right found the notion of creative freedom so threatening to the core religious and social values in the United States, that a law, The Hays Code, was rushed through demanding all film scripts pass a certain standard and pertain to a certain set of strict values. It wasn’t until 1952 that the Supreme Court overturned The Hays Code and declared that all movies fell under the banner of free speech; to censor such art forms would be an infringement of human rights. This coincided with the theory of the ‘auteur’ coming out of France in the 1950’s; an idea that films were not just individually crafted parts adding up to a whole, but were a flow of consciousness from one individual, the director, that could not be censored or controlled. To censor such expression would be to censor art and society itself. Since the overturning of The Hays Code, sex has been deeply embedded into the film industry. 9 1/2 Weeks and Basic Instinct are just a few examples of sex featuring in, and defining, a film. Sex pours off our screens and, when it is done well, it is achieved with good acting, great direction and expertly contrived staging. The sex in these films, as with all other Hollywood films, is as fabricated and is usually the most staged part of the film itself. Clearly we do not need to see actors having sex to believe it within the context of a narrative, so what will real sex add to a film that simulated sex can’t?

One must always be hesitant to define or label any film prior to a release or without seeing a trailer, however, it’s safe to say that whatever Nymphomaniac is, if the hype is to be believed, it is technically pornography; simply defined as ‘printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs’. Written and directed by Von Trier and the third title in his “Trilogy of Depression” (after Antichrist and MelancholiaNymphomaniac is about sex so it’s reasonable to assume the sex scenes will be frequent and sustained. The fact alone that there will be two cuts of the film demonstrates the explicitness of the sex is redundant to the story. In a ‘mainstream’, dramatic film anything redundant to the characters, narrative or theme is ultimately gratuitous. Really, the question raised here then is can pornography be dramatic? Can an explicitly sexual narrative be visually compelling?

Nymphomaniac is about the liberation and sexual awakening of the main female protagonist. The choice to use unsimulated sex could be a powerful tool; liberating the viewer from social constraints, especially when viewed with another person, and forcing a viewer to address what we consider appropriate in film. The symbolism is undeniable. Why self-censor what is a basic human instinct, regardless of if it’s sex for reproduction or for pleasure? Done well, as we know Trier is more than capable, the film could liberate its audience. Pornography is so often alienating to women, but with expert execution, Nymphomaniac could break down taboos and boundaries. If the sex scene in Antichrist is anything to go by, the sex will be stylised, beautifully shot and built into the drama, although, one has to point out,  seeing penetration added nothing to the scene and did little to define or shape the narrative arcs of the characters. However, one can’t help but feel this is the point. Trier is revelling in this; suggesting you can stimulate the body as well as the mind. He is toying with the audience and challenging what is considered acceptable to society. The use of bona fide Hollywood stars, regardless of whether they are the ones having sex, confuses the genre, the message, the interest and the reception to this type of film.

Real sex is always going to be a dangerous card to play for any serious director. It can have the opposite affect of what is intended. Instead of drawing the audience in, unsimulated sex can alienate the audience from the real. We become hyper aware that film stars are having sex on screen. By sticking a scene under the microscope and censoring nothing you risk highlighting the falsity as much as exposing the real. It will take a steady hand and a defined vision to create a synchronism between pornography and storytelling. Indie film 9 Songs was remarkably bland when it attempted this in 2004; this is not a landscape which is easy to navigate.

The proof ultimately will be in the pudding and to be close-minded to the forthcoming Nymphomaniac definitely isn’t the way forward. It may be the time for porn to come out of the dark and into the light and Trier may just be the man to carve out a new niche of ‘mainstream’ erotica.  As a society we make the leap that porn cannot be art. Trier is pushing back. Its our own shortcomings that restricts us to define art; this could be undefinable. This could be fantastic. It could not. Either way I am open-minded to what is the future of sex in cinema. This film could define in which direction it leads. Or it could not.

The film is released in Denmark on 30th May, 2013, so expect it worldwide around that time.

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The Shining: what does the last shot mean?

The endings of Kubrick movies are arguably as enigmatic as the man himself, and The Shining ­- a 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s supernatural horror novel – does nothing to buck that trend. After 90 mins of watching a father gradually exit reality stage-left, and witnessing his son form a supernatural/psychic bond with an old black man, we are left with a final shot that asks more questions than it answers.

SPOILERS.

Subsequent to Jack’s frosty death and the family’s escape, we see a slow tracking shot down one of the labyrinthian corridors of the hotel. At the end of the corridor is a collection of frames hanging on a wall, framed by a doorway; there is dark area inside the doorway leading into the light of the corridor. The pacing, framing and uncanny score over this scene causes a draw of focus and a blossoming of intrigue for the audience.

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The pace of the tracking shot is so lingering it’s easy to find yourself urging on the camera to reveal what are the details of the pictures on the wall. As the main photo becomes visible in the shot, we see it shows Jack at the front of a crowd of Great Gatsby-esque, pre-Depression Americans in the throes of a celebration. A painfully slow pan down the photo reveals it was taken on the Independence Day celebrations of 1921. This film is set in 197-late, so we are all left wondering how did Jack appear in a photo 50 years prior? The greatest thing about this ending is that it is completely open to interpretation. My personal reading of the film is Jack gets literally consumed by the malevolent forces in the house, and his son’s psychic ability allows him to combat this evil and indirectly use it against his dad.

Danny has the ability to see into the past, which we see manifesting itself as the dead twins, and while being terrified at first, he seems unaffected. I believe it’s safe to assume these aren’t the only visions he has seen in his stay in the hotel. If Danny can see the hotel’s past, then he can see how the hotel manipulates its guests into committing brutal acts, can see his dad getting affected in real time, therefore stays one step ahead. The fact he retraces his steps in the maze could be a reference to retracing the history of the hotel to stay alive.

If Danny fights the hotel and stays alive, then Jack commits himself to the hotel by trying to engage sexually with a spectre. By doing so he gives himself up to the hotel, and gives himself up to the past. Some other manifestations of the past are the butler, a barman, the hotel guests, the aforementioned twins and that sexy spectre (who gets rapidly unsexy by decaying while Jack is trying it on with her). This supernatural element of the film gives weight to the assumption that Jack appearing in the photo is the hotel literally consuming him; when Jack is trapped in the food store, the hotel unlocks the door, which is weighty evidence of the hotel being more than just a building.

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The Shining asks many more questions of its audience. Kubrick took a lot of criticism for changing many aspects of the book, but there is no denying the genius of the man, and this is potentially his most accessible work. If you haven’t seen the movie then you are silly for reading beyond our spoiler warning, but if you watch it you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.

Rope

ROPE

‘Did you think you were God, Brandon?’

In 2011, cinemagoers were treated to two feature films adapted from successful theatre plays. The Ides Of March and Carnage both had megastars the likes of Gosling, Clooney, Seymour Hoffman, Winslett, Waltz, C Riley and Foster chewing lines, both dealt with subtexts of contemporary socio-political themes, and both owed their respective productions to foregone, critically-acclaimed plays.

Another thing these two movies had in common, despite their origins, was their “film-like” aesthetic. They both used an active camera, shot- reverse- shots, two shots and the editing suite to give dimensions to conversations, characters and locations. The screenplay, in Ides especially, shed any link to the origins of the story and its theatre roots.

Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), also a stage play adaptation, differs in style. If you want to know the true story inspiration behind the play, read the spoilers. In the movie, Hitchcock employs an ambitious series of dolly shots (to use a term heavily associated with the director), pans and focus pulls to take us on a journey through the set, yet most of what we see happens in wide shot traverse. The actors and actresses occupy their marks – the camera and actor blocking is unmissable at times – yet there are numerous periods during the film where the audience has to be active in analysing the scene in its entirety. There are also a number of cuts that are employed to give the scenes a continuous take effect; the camera will pan behind a character and cause a diegetic cut to black, again paying homage to the continuous nature of theatre. Subsequently, Rope becomes a very ‘play-like’ movie.

We are all far too familiar with contemporary mainstream cinema. A cinema that suffers from the post-Bourne headache of crash zooms and pans, constant, pointless tracking shots framing mundane scenarios, epileptic editing and the art of not telling a story in under 120 mins. Even terrible films are written to run over at least 100 mins, which is too long when you’re watching something like Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean; both of these films lack but a thread of good storytelling. It seems a shame that if you want to search for traditional forms of storytelling, you have to go back 60 years, seek out those ‘little independent, avant garde, foreign films’, or attend the theatre, where there seems more focus on character development, dramatic tension and acting as an art form.

Hitchcock, as well as using Rope to hone his adventurous camera skills, the likes of which were deployed in his 1950s seminal works (look them up), used this film to comment on the socio-political climate of the late-40s. The two main themes explored in this film are homosexuality, and the Nietzsche philosophy of the ‘ubermensch’; a philosophy warped by the Nazis during World War 2 that lead to the destruction of 6 million Jews, as well as millions more homosexuals, disabled, gypsies, partisans and communists.

The homosexual subtext is evident right after the first scene, in which the two protagonists converse after the murder of a peer. Lines such as ‘lets stay like this for a while’ when they embrace after the release of the murder – a release that appears more like post-coitum elation; ‘I wish we could do it in broad daylight with the curtains open’; and the lighting of a cigarette, a popular trope related to shagged-out lovers. There is also the constant reference to the murder as ‘it’, a term ambiguous enough to relate to homosexuality, which at the time was a highly controversial subject, especially one to be dealt with in cinema; homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Britain up until 1960.

The other main subtext, or allegory in Rope, is the fact that the main character believes he can murder the inferior purely because he feels superior and therefore has the right to make that choice. Clearly this is a reference to the Holocaust, an event that began some 7 years before this film was released. The idea of ‘supermen’ or ‘ubermensch’ spawned the Nazi ideology of inferior humans, or the subspecies, which is the main point touched upon by the narrative of Rope.

And now to commit the cardinal sin of writing and change person. I had actually seen Rope once before, and genuinely fell in love with the film. It is ambitious, tense, I love use of allegory or subtext [which more directors should employ because we audiences aren’t dumb]. Hitchcock is one of my favourite directors of all time because I absolutely love the way he uses the camera and lens, and Rope is arguably one of his more technical projects, which I commend.

Then at whom is Hitchcock’s Rope aimed? If you are a fan of generic blockbusters in which you cannot see arse from elbow, Rope is not for you. If you are looking for a film and don’t care about pacing, or more to the fact, if you love how a camera can help build tension, watch Rope. If you love the theatre and seeing plays, watch Rope. If you like Hitchcock, well you get the idea.