Nymphomaniac vol. 2

2014, Lars von Trier, dir.

By Rachel Kendall

Now that 50 Shades has hit our screens (and our newspapers, twitter feeds, blogs, magazines etc etc etc) I thought I’d better get on with my review of the second part of Nymphomaniac. As far as hype goes, I don’t remember the last time a film has whipped up such a storm. Obviously whether 50 Shades of Grey is any good or not is of the least significance when it comes to lathering up an audience. It’s all about the marketing, that’s all. Oh, and the bondage. Suddenly BDSM has gone mainstream, to a mixed reaction. There are those who argue for the culture of BDSM, whose reputation they feel the film has damaged, and there are others who sigh loudly at its boring/vanilla attempt to shock. I haven’t seen the film. Neither have I read the book, so I can’t comment. Generally, when a film gets a lot of Hollywood hype, I run the other way.

It’s not that I don’t like films about relationships, sex and the psyche. It’s just that I like such films to have more meat than gloss. If you want to see a study of abuse, watch the heart-breaking Tyrannosaur. If you want a film about loveless sex watch Intimacy. Read The Sexual Life of Catherine O, de Sade’s Justine or Juliette or any Henry Miller book.

Or you could watch Nymphomaniac – Lars von Trier’s cold study of addiction, depression and denial. I have to admit I watched this volume a few weeks ago but, unlike the first part, I didn’t feel compelled to scribble a review straight away. I think volume 1 had me engrossed but the second one was just a continuation.

In part two, Joe has ‘grown up’. She’s become a fully-fledged nymphomaniac (not a sex addict, as she’s quick to retort!) with all the self-loathing that comes with using the body for pleasure alone. Although there is more happening in her life now, with the advent of domesticity and the kind of experience in matters of sex that few could compete with, this part feels more like a list of sexual deviances… von Trier is ticking the boxes. It’s all actually quite tame and considering how much you get to see I was quite surprised that the film stopped short at some of the more outlandish varieties.

There’s a real sense of detachment here, something I guess is shared with most thrill-seekers. Almost all of the characters are known only by a letter, which has the effect of reducing them to something of less worth than anonymous beings; it makes them controlled anonymous beings. This in itself falls in line with the simple notion of sadomasochism, that when not in the moment – the orgasm, the pain, the anything that takes one above the ever-rising threshold – there is very little of worth or enjoyment at all. Only destruction through the guise of pleasure brings a semblance of living, rather than existing.

Jamie Bell in Nymphomaniac

Jamie Bell in Nymphomaniac

But the thrill-seeker has to keep upping the ante. So the threesomes, the same-sex romps, the beatings and bondage all become boring and eventually masochist turns to sadist just to feel normal. And Joe continues to learn with every new experience though her body (now bearing the scars of abuse) remains a piece of meat to be discussed, argued over, dissected into rump, breast and thigh.

But then along comes P, Joe’s beautiful, enigmatic protégé (played by Mia Goth). Gorgeous as the troubled schoolgirl just waiting to be manipulated, Goth’s character brings a raw fragility to rival the jaded older woman. She brings the twist and shout to a film on the verge of becoming boring. And what an exquisitely cruel twist it is.

Mia Goth as P

Mia Goth as P

I enjoyed Nymphomaniac 1 and 2. I think these are very Trieresque films. In fact, you can list his recurring themes – female protagonist (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville etc), chaotic mental states (Melancholia, Nymphomaniac, Antichrist, Medea), attempted therapy/recovery (Breaking the Waves, Antichrist)… I do feel he could say his piece in two hours though, rather than 4. Von Trier fans will probably like this, but I’m not sure about other viewers, who may find it a little too analytical. It’s no 50 Shades and although it received its fair share of hype, people won’t have flocked to see it. But its characters, its scenarios, its re-visited mistakes, make this a flawless portrayal of a complex human psyche.

Advertisements

Nymphomaniac vol. 1

2014, Lars von Trier, dir.

By Rachel Kendall

I’ve just finished watching the first part of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and have decided to write a real-time review. Essentially this is only half the film so the following is based on my observations SO FAR. Please do not post any spoilers in the comments section!

nymphomaniac 1

I’ve always been a von Trier fan. Though his films leave a welt where others only leave a mark, meaning you might not be able to face a second viewing, they are never mediocre, never style-over-substance or veg-out viewing. You wouldn’t want to watch Melancholia when you have a hangover, or Antichrist when you’ve just been dumped. His films are consistently analytical portraits of what it means to be human, shaped by the losses, loves and disappointments that we all face. In other words von Trier films ‘contain some scenes which some viewers may find upsetting’.

With a title like Nymphomaniac, the expectation is already there. Of course there are going to be scenes of a sexual nature, possibly scenes of violence too. Like in The Idiots von Trier has again grabbed a difficult (and, yes, controversial) subject and thrown it out there, for the masses to tear apart, without the need to defend or explain his choice.

But just as with The Idiots there was more to the film than imitation and self-expression, so too in Nymphomaniac is there more to the story than just sex. This is not a porn film. There are no shaved cunts (so far) and gorgeous abs. There are pubes; there is ample flesh, sagging and dimpled; there are stubby digits and pot-bellies. If anything sex is just the medium with which von Trier can flex his analytical muscle. This is a film about compassion, and how to avoid it. It is an anti-love story, narrated by the main character, Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) and pared right down to characters and a plot that fit neatly into separate chapters. In fact the neatness of this film is very much a von Trierism. Everything is mapped out, all loose ends are tied, and each sequence segues neatly (though sometimes a bit annoyingly) into the next. There is almost the feel of a science report – introduction, method, results, discussion. Sleeping with 8 or 10 men in a day takes precise working out. Numbers are key, everything is quantitative, and much is left to chance. Even the decision to reject (and how harshly) or to see again, comes down to the simple roll of the die.

The narrator tells her story, via flashback, to Seligman, the gentle hero who took her into his home after he found her unconscious and bleeding in a back street. It is also a dialogue, as Seligman turns therapist and slowly manages to prise her open emotionally, forcing her to give up her secrets while he, in turn, adds anecdote, theory and random facts about Bach and fly-fishing.

nymphomaniac-volume-1-photo-1

In this first half of the film the young Joe has slept with countless men but there has been nothing particularly degrading yet, no filth or humiliation, but I fully expect to see such things in part 2. Interestingly, Charlotte Gainsbourg has only so far appeared as narrator for her younger self, played by Stacy Martin. Martin has Gainsbourg’s discernable (and somewhat annoying) dead-pan gaze and plummy monotone voice and plays the young sex addict well. Still finding her feet and her sexual flair (bait) she gets herself into troublesome situations but nothing that can’t be fixed. Sex is a procedure. It has a beginning and an end. The end isn’t always pleasurable but the act is always the antidote to the things beyond her control.

There is much to be said about Joe’s relationship with her father, which I won’t go into here as I don’t want to give anything away. This may be a Freudian intention. Or it may not. But Christian Slater as the father is probably the greatest actor in the film. The character is humble and generous while the acting is flawless.

Another brilliantly-played part is that of Mrs H. Uma Thurman has only one scene but her portrayal of the aggrieved wife and mother could give Medea a run for her money.

Uma-Thurman-Nymphomaniac

So far, in fact, the only disappointing actor is Gainsbourg. Her portrayal of a woman so absolutely knocked flat by grief, in Antichrist, was perfect. But now I realise that it’s just the way she is. Gainsbourg is understated; she gives very little. Which is fair enough if your expression and tone of voice do all the work, but these barely change either. I kind of want to slap her into action. BUT, this is only volume one, this is only a re-telling of her past-self. I will give her the benefit of the doubt.

Watch this space for a review of volume 2 – the one where Gainsbourg changes her expression!

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (“Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night”)

1979, Werner Herzog dir.

By Nick Jackson

Nosferatu_Phantom_der_Nacht

There are some scenes in which, Herzog’s ‘Nosferatu’ appears an almost frame-by-frame remake of Murnau’s 1922 Expressionist masterpiece.  Yet, it is infused with surreal details and a certain unmistakeable lugubrious humour that mark it out as a Herzogian creation.  Murnau’s jagged set designs are softened and romanticised and Max Schreck’s eerie woodenness as Count Orlok is replaced by Klaus Kinski’s studied emotional ambiguity in the role of Dracula.

From the opening credits, it draws the reader into a peculiarly grotesque vision.  The credits appear as the camera pans a series of contemporary mummies from Mexico’s Museo de las Momias in Guanajuato whose arid climate has preserved the twisted corpses as if in their death throes.  The soundtrack is a plaintive oboe ascending and descending in a minor key with a throbbing heartbeat accompaniment.

Then, from this surreal opening, the scene changes to a domestic interior in the Baltic port of Wismar where a pair of kittens playfully bat at a miniature portrait of Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), the wife of Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz).  All is polished wood, frilly muslin curtains, shafts of sunlight as the couple breakfast.  It’s almost too kitschy but strangely it presages disaster – to sustain this kind of cutesy happiness would be impossible and we all know it.  Herzog is showing us the birds in their gilded cage before they’re taken out and torn to shreds.

As in Murnau’s original, the young hero seems to rush headlong towards his doom, wasting his youthful energy in a dash for wealth and consequence.  After a lightning change of scene we see him despatched by the sinister estate agent Renfield to fulfil a commission for Graf Dracula in deepest, darkest Transylvania who wishes to find a nice property with a convenient source of human sustenance.  There’s a touching scene as Lucy pleads with Jonathan not to leave her.  But the desire for wealth has already corrupted Harker’s mind.

Herzog enters into his element as the film follows Harker through an increasingly wild and stormy landscape.   The scenery mirrors the paintings of the High German romantics.  One particular shot of Harker, outlined against the mountains is strongly suggestive of Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Mist.  The soundtrack is Wagner at his most lyrical.

In the act of reaching for these impossibly romantic visions, Harker is also arriving at his nemesis.  In this case the nemesis takes the shape of Klaus Kinski in the role of Dracula.  This is Kinski at his most ineffable – he plays a part that is at once comic and profound.  His speeches are larded with the kind of sycophancy that makes your flesh crawl, yet he has lines that are awful in their suggestion of desolation.  And the homoerotic possibilities of the their encounter are not downplayed: Bruno Ganz has the shocked air of a man who suddenly realizes that he has wandered into a gay club as his host insinuates himself and plies him with a double measure of wine in an impossibly camp goblet.  The sight of Lucy’s miniature portrait, which clearly entrances Dracula, serves only to heighten the perverse sexual tension between the two men.

From this moment, now under the spell of his host, Harker is a lost man.  We see this in his sidelong glances, his air of confusion and resignation.  There’s nothing he can do to save himself and his fate seems settled.  Count Dracula’s attitude to his victim is contempt, thinly veiled by an oily subservience that wavers into moments of desperate impatience.  There’s a hilarious moment as Dracula, unable to control himself, lunges for Harker over a lavishly spread table and we think he is going to take his victim by force but then he regains his self-control and the dreadful anticipation is prolonged.  It’s impossible also to resist a feeling of pathos towards the desolate figure of Dracula as well as a creeping sense of horror.  Harker’s actual seduction is played out, as in Murnau’s film, with a kind of stiff, cartoonish hyperbole.  Herzog can’t avoid the clichés of the piece, so plays along with them in a delicious spirit of excess.

The film proceeds to cut between the three characters of Harker, Lucy and Dracula.  Tension builds as we follow Harker falling into a state of illness, recovering and setting off in desperation to try and reach Wismar before Dracula, who journeys by ship preying on the crew in the process.  These scenes are intercut with clips of Lucy, wandering in a state of miserable anticipation by the sea looking for all the world like a jilted lover.  Isabelle Adjani gets a fairly rotten script but looks ravishing in every scene she is in.  At least she gets to do more than scream pathetically and wait passively for the men to sort things out.  Lucy is the fulcrum on which the film’s plot turns.  Her beauty and incorruptibility make her a match for Dracula’s nihilism who, as we know, can only be despatched by a woman of impeachable morals.

She is the lone voice of reason, in fact, in a town where the entire populace seems to be descending into collective madness.  The arrival of Dracula in Wismar heralds not only sickness and plague but also social disintegration.  Herzog makes much of this with surreal sequences filmed from a high camera angle in the streets and squares of the old town.  Successive groups of feasting revellers try to seduce Lucy as she wanders from place to place but she, reflecting her inner moral strength, pulls away.  We see the townsfolk drunk and incontinent like the animals that wander in their midst; a pig has a notable role letting loose a stream of shit in the middle of the square as men and women carouse in the background.

The film is replete with references to insanity.  The agent Renfield (Roland Topor) crops up in mental asylum where he has been placed for ‘biting a cow’ and there are some astonishing shots of him being restrained with a strait-jacket.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen madness played with such gleeful energy.

The final scenes of the film, predictable as they are, hold our attention, perhaps because of a sharp attention to detail.  Certain atmospheric details – the particularly revolting similarity of the fiend to a baby feeding at its mother’s breast in the key scene of ravishment – seem freshly horrific.  And the ending, as evil seems to be the ultimate victor, is somehow unexpectedly upbeat.  The soundtrack is Gounod’s Sanctus for the St. Cecilia Mass, a lovely, airy choral setting which soars into brightness and spiritual purity.  Why?  Perhaps it’s part of the film’s dialectic between romance and horror, beauty and desolation, hope and despair.

The Rhythms of Planting, Harvesting, Aging and Loss

The Ballad of Narayama, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. 1958.

by Mark Fuller Dillon The_Ballad_of_Narayama_(1958)_DVD A great challenge of art is how to deal with troubling topics in a way that sheds light on them without scaring away an audience. One solution is to provide a beautiful background without losing sight of the pain and loss in the foreground; this film does that in the most haunting and magnificent way.

The film is essentially a ballad, presented with song and music, not as you would find in a musical, but as a form of commentary. The action takes place in vast, theatrical sets that are gorgeously detailed yet clearly artificial, and the entire production is bathed in stunning colours. Just when you begin to think that nothing else could top the visual splendour of the previous moment, the film surprises you again — and again.

This breathtaking visual beauty serves a tale that would otherwise be too raw, too harsh to consider. The story deals with a peasant community that has taken a severe approach to the question of population: whenever the elders reach the age of 70, they are carried off to the peak of a mountain, and left there to die. This procedure is ritualized in every way, right down to the songs that children sing, right down to the rhythms of planting and harvesting and the movement of the seasons. These people accept their way of life, and pass it on from generation to generation without complaint.

Yet all the same, these people are still human beings, with human feelings and human ties. The burden of leaving someone you love to die, alone, in the cold, is more than most of us could bear, and the film is clear about the human costs of this tradition.

In the end, The Ballad of Narayama provides no maps to an exit, no easy answers to an old human challenge. It confronts directly the ways in which we handle aging and death, and if you have any heart at all, this film will break it.

Yet at the same time, in its honesty, in its compassion, in its overwhelming visual beauty, this film will stay with you. I urge you to see it.

* taken from http://markfullerdillon.blogspot.ca/2013/07/the-ballad-of-narayama-directed-by.html

Telephone Call for the Maitlands

by B Drew Collier

beetlejuice movie poster

So, I’m watching Beetlejuice (for about the 99th time) and once again I’m struck by something that happens right at the beginning of the film that skews my perspective of the events that follow, and by extension the concept of death (not just the afterlife) that Tim Burton presents to us.

If you’ve never seen Beetlejuice, stop reading right now and go watch it. Go on. I’m sure you can stream it from somewhere. I’ll wait.

Seen it? Isn’t it surreal? Isn’t it cool? Doesn’t it just mess with your head? Despite your best effort to maintain a cynical outlook on life, doesn’t it make you feel good in the end?

Great. Now think back to the beginning of the film: the Maitlands are on vacation. Barbara and Adam plan to spend their vacation at home catching up on thrilling projects around their house like wallpapering the dining room and refinishing the wardrobe. They’re obviously real go-getters because it’s something like 6:30 in the morning and they’re already fully dressed and jumping straight into the day even though they’re on vacation. This lovely couple’s up in their attic exchanging some gifts, some pleasantly romantic banter, and a few smooches on the old attic sofa. They’re so delightfully smitten with each other and have such a perfect life together that I think Andy Griffith might have had a hand in the script.

Now here – not later on the covered bridge – is were I believe everything changes for the Maitlands, right at this point where they’re wallowing in the midst of their perfect happiness.

The phone rings.

They continue to canoodle on the sofa and playfully ignore the phone call. Barbara gets up to answer it, Adam pulls her back, they smooch some more, etc. Everything’s a sunny holiday until a car horn outside snaps them out of their romantic game. We quickly discover that the car and its horn belong to Jane, the town’s real estate agent, who pesters the Maitlands about selling their house, but we never find out who was phoning them so early in the morning.

In our 21st century mindset, we might think that the phone call is from Jane: she’s on her cellphone letting them know she’s on her way up the drive, but keep in mind that Beetlejuice came out in 1988, long before cellphone ubiquity made it normal to call someone from the end of their driveway (or text them from across the table). Yes, there were car phones available at the time, but they cost $4,000, and Jane is a small-town realtor who isn’t likely to be able to afford something like that. More concretely, she’s driving a Lincoln Continental that doesn’t have a mobile phone antenna on it, so we can eliminate her as the caller.

So, who is on the other end of the phone line?

I’ve searched all over for an answer but continually come up empty handed: nothing mentioned in interviews, no enlightening script notes, I can’t even find anyone else asking the question. So, I’m left with nothing but the source material. If I’m going to find an answer, I have to look for it in the film.

Considering Beetlejuice as a whole – the opening sequence of the model house on the model hill in the model town inside the real house on the real hill inside the real town inside Burton’s movie (or perhaps his mind, depending on which authorial theory you believe), the improbably long set up with the dog and the Volvo and the rickety covered bridge crossing the river that divides the Maitland’s home from the town, Adam’s careless disregard for the handbook that ends up in Otho’s hands and leads to the Maitland’s ultimate moment of despair – it’s clear that Burton has set the Maitlands up in a nesting-doll universe that operates on a set of Rube Goldberg (chains of action/reaction) principles. 

If I may continue with the nesting doll metaphor, the Maitland’s model is the core doll: an inanimate yet complete representation of the limited world where the film takes place. The Maitlands, who are the only main characters without any immediate family, are the next doll, ensconced in their home with minimal contact between themselves and the next doll out, which is the real town with Jane and her daughter and the other townies who themselves interact minimally with the next doll out, which is the larger world where the Deetz family and their business partners and friends originate.

Got all that?

Don’t worry, it’s not very important except for the fact that the Maitlands don’t have any immediate family. No parents or siblings or children. So it’s not like Adam’s dad is calling him at 6:45 in the morning to see how the big-ass model in his attic is coming along. I realize that within the film there isn’t much direct evidence to support this contention beyond the awkward exchange about Barbara’s inability to have children and a complete lack of any references to family members, however the original shooting scripts suggest that Adam inherited his hardware store and home from his family, so we can reasonably extrapolate that he has no close relatives.

We’ve eliminated some possible sources for the phone call, but still haven’t come up with an answer.

What other evidence can we find? I have to ask, why do the Maitlands ignore the telephone, even mock it, although they instantly respond to the toot! toot! outside their window? Is there a difference in the level of reality between the ringing phone and the car horn? The Maitlands definitely hear the phone. Barbara stands up to answer it, but the call passes away like a phantom without any further mention.

Consider also that the phone call terminates inside the Maitland’s house, inside that level of the nested dolls where Barbara and Adam abide while alive and where they must reside once they’re dead (unless of course they want to visit the sandworms or the bureaucratic offices of their caseworker). Jane and her car and its horn remain outside, in the next layer of nesting doll world, even when the Maitlands are still alive. In fact, no one enters the house apart from the Maitlands until after they are dead.

Is it possible that the phone call, which is the first thing to enter the Maitland’s house yet doesn’t intrude on their personal reality and immediately fades from their memory, originates somewhere beyond the nest of dolls we’ve established? 

Could the phone call be from death itself? I can imagine death as a the sporting type, giving the Maitland’s a chance to divert their fate – if one of them had answered the phone, they would have been in their house longer, would have missed the encounter with the dog and, of course, their plunge into the river. However, they not only don’t answer the phone, they joke with it. I like to pretend that death, on the other end of the line, shrugs, hangs up and heads for the bridge.

One counter argument is that we never see death in a corporeal form. However, while the Maitlands and Beetleguese and all the other characters in the afterlife have bodies, they were all alive at some point, so they had bodies to begin with. Death, being a concept rather than a corporeal entity, may not have a body to speak of. Perhaps this is why everything works like a Rube Goldberg device. Death doesn’t get its hands dirty because it has no hands. It just shows up at the right place at the right time.

I’m still not 100% comfortable with this idea. Burton doesn’t introduce any other conceptual entities within this film, and the Beetlejuice world does seem to be particularly human-centric. I’m left with some other possibilities such as a phone call from someone previously deceased, perhaps Adam’s father or mother; or even a morbid gag by Burton himself, calling his creations each time the film starts, knowing they will never answer the phone and go on driving off the bridge forever.

But that kind of takes the fun out of the movie.

‘I’m not a demon. I’m a human being.’

by Mark Howard Jones 1In 14th century war-torn Japan two nameless women – a mother and her daughter-in-law – eke out a living by scavenging off the samurai who wander into the huge wilderness of susuki grass where they live.

The deadly pair kill the disoriented warriors with spears that appear from nowhere out of the 10-foot tall walls of grass, stripping the bodies and dumping them in a seemingly bottomless pit. They sell the scavenged weapons and other belongings to a nearby trader for food.

One day a neighbour returns from the war with news that his friend, the women’s son and husband, is dead. The man then decides to join the women in their murderous enterprise.

Soon the younger woman is leaving the hut she shares with her mother-in-law each night, running through the midnight fields of grass to the man’s hut. There she spend the night having sex before returning home.

After having her own sexual advances to the man rejected, the mother-in-law is overwhelmed with sexual jealousy, deciding that if she can’t have him then neither will the younger woman.

She then decides to use a terrifying demon mask she steals from a dead samurai to frighten her daughter-in-law away from her sexual encounters.

Needless to say, the plan ends in tragedy.

*****

Made in 1964 by Kaneta Shindo, the stunning monochrome photography of ‘Onibaba’ (Demon Hag) is both beautiful and eerie.

Filmed entirely on location during an allegedly tortuous shoot, the film has a unique atmosphere – quite unlike anything else you will see. The original Japanese title is slightly misleading as this certainly isn’t horror film, though it does have some horror elements in it.

It is more an exploration of the struggle to survive (which nudges up against greed), loneliness and raw lust.

By cocooning the characters in an isolated riverside marshland on which outside reality only rarely intrudes, Shindo focuses our attention on their inner world and the psycho-sexual dance that takes place between them. None of the characters is at all likeable but they are certainly compelling – at times you’ll feel like you shouldn’t be intruding on their private world but you’ll be hard pressed to tear yourself away.

It is impossible to imagine the film without the eerily waving sea of grass, lit in a stark Expressionist style. It both conceals terrible secrets from the characters while revealing them suddenly to us.

Though at one stage the director falls back on that good old cliche, a storm, to indicate the characters’ heightening inner turbulence the combination of lightning, rain and the waving grass provides a beautiful spectacle that somewhat undermines his intention.

The music and sound effects must also be mentioned.  Hikaru Hayashi’s score mixes traditional Japanese drumming with western jazz to often startling results. And the sounds of cooing doves that accompany the young woman’s headlong lust-fuelled night-time journeys through waving grasses is very unsettling, if slightly puzzling.

I thought the fact that when I’d watched this film on BBC2 back in the 1970s it was on a portable television, alone in a darkened room, had been largely responsible for its highly charged atmosphere. But a recent viewing on digitally remastered DVD in broad daylight proved me very wrong.

For years this film was unobtainable in the UK but it is now available on both DVD and BluRay formats.

The melancholic world of Lars von Trier

 

by Rachel Kendall

Melancholia

Every time I watch a new von Trier film I think I know what to expect. And every time I am totally blown away with his infallible sense of the new in film-making. Yes there are recurring themes in his work, but he clothes each emotion in new finery every time.

I recently watched Melancholia. Then I watched it again straight after. I’ll be honest and say this film didn’t really appeal to me, though I have seen most of his previous films and his early (and funny/surreal as Hell) series Riget, and loved them. Dogville didn’t really get to me in the same way. It may be that I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to ‘get’ this totally experimental shot at film-making. Or it may have more to do with the fact that Nicole Kidman was in it.

Melancholia was released in the midst of a public storm surrounding von Trier, regarding a Nazi-related comment he made, and because of this I think the film was boycotted by much of his usual audience. Von Trier is no stranger to controversy though. When The Idiots came out in in 1998 it was received with horror by some, and according to one reviewer it was just ‘merde’. There was much debate about the way disability was portrayed, and also about the explicit sexual scenes in the film. But people were missing the point. The film is about a group of people who feign developmental disability while out in public, in order to posit an unspoken and largely unanswered question about disability. But in private it’s also an opportunity to gain control over one’s previously suppressed emotions.

And then, of course, there’s the upcoming film Nymphomania, where, as the title suggests, von Trier once again does not shy away from explicity sexual material. Again he has been called into question over the (un)necessary and overtly sexual scenes.

The first von Trier film I watched was Dancer in the Dark. When I say I watched it, I mean I got half-way through and then decided I couldn’t take it any more. It was just too sad. I’ve seen sadder, grimmer, grittier films since, so perhaps one day I’ll give it another go. Antichrist, for instance, is a devastatingly difficult film to watch, but Gainsbourg’s portrayal of a woman flattened by grief is utterly compelling.

When I read about Melancholia I thought – here we go, another depressing film. But I should have known better. None of this director’s films are JUST about depression or anti-establishmentarianism. There is something much larger, allegorical. His actors don’t simply show the characteristics of depression; there are other dangerous/natural forces at work. In Antichrist, Gainsbourg’s guilt and grief are like a gateway opened up to the demons hiding in nature’s baser places. It’s the thesis on witchcraft she takes up again; it’s the struggle against something much more powerful and dangerous than her ie. her grief.

In Melancholia the face of depression is revealed to be the planet Melancholia on a collision course with Earth. It’s the crashes of orchestral music and the breath-taking, slow-motion images that makes this a very beautiful film. Kirsten Dunst plays her part well, fighting depression whilst trying, so very hard and even on her wedding day, to pretend everything is okay, whilst Melancholia looms, coming closer, threatening to wipe the world out. And like anyone who has suffered from depression for a long time, this is how it feels. You can see it on the horizon, you know when it is coming, and you have to brave yourself for the moment of impact.

Lars von Trier directs beautiful films. But they can be difficult because of their subject matter. Why would you want to watch a film about a woman who’s lost a child, or a woman who is constantly battling depression (his main characters are usually women. There’s a feminine/planetary/natural link running through these films, as though the female, in her ancient lunar/fluid form, is his muse)? Because he shows us the worst at its most beautiful, its most dangerous and its most believable. By creating another world and another consciousness, he delivers a reality stripped of artifice and loaded with personal understanding.

Japanese Horror Films

by William Park

1 2 3 4

Actual horror lies in the imprisoned psyche.  Japanese cinema, as far back as the 60s, has captured the essence of this territory.  I’ll refer back to the 60s in this short introduction to Japanese horror, while describing some of the key films from the 90s and beyond.

Ichi The Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001) is best described as a Yakuza (crime) thriller, with horrific elements – and Miike’s earlier work, Audition (1999), is more specifically in the genre.

Unease is created in Ichi, through disorientating camera angles, pumping frenetic music, sudden violence – but grotesque torture doesn’t disturb the depths of the psyche, merely shocks and provokes.  Where this film does disturb, is through the killer Ichi’s childish, baffled visage, his bouts of crying, so at odds with the merciless violence he unleashes.  In the meleé of grotesque mutilation, screams, and ludicrous blood-letting, there is a core of horror – in the relentlessness of pursuit leading to death. This claustrophobic narrowing confines the viewer to a specific world of freakish violence.

Far from being mere fantasy, horror draws on underlying fears we experience, about threat, uncertainty, death, and even love.

Audition takes 45 minutes to bring us to the image of Asami’s bent figure, her long black locks (a hairstyle as sinister as Sadako’s in Nakata’s Ring) draped to the floor, while she concentrates on mentally forcing Aoyama to phone her.  It’s seductive, sweetly disturbing, together with her words ‘Please love me. Only me…’ and her subsequent disappearance – as much a part of the instruments of manipulative torture as any of the final explicit scenes.

Aoyama’s ordeal by Asami’s needle and wire is lengthy, but the one shot shown in silence, through a double-glazed window, is, being muted, the most effective scene.  The depth of character in the film – ‘ballet purified the dark side of me’ comments Asami – contributes to our horror at the dark side’s emergence.

The classic Onibaba (written and directed by Kaneto Shindo, 1963) takes us further. It begins with frenetic drum-beats, Stravinsky-strident brass (the score is by Mitsu Hayashi) and sinuous, waving reeds…such imagery working with anticipation and the half-hidden – then, the Valkyrie-like intensity of the female characters, their vengefulness, readiness, and intent to kill, chills.

Their rock-killing of a dog (for food to eat) is both realistic and upsetting. The fear within both women starts to work on the viewer’s psyche, via the terrified expression of the daughter-in-law, hearing the description of hell realms, or the widow, scared by the masked samurai.

Atmosphere is conveyed through haunted expressions, the cawing of crows, and stark black and white photography at waist-high, confining, Ozu-style level.

The use of wide-angle lens creates claustrophobic intensity in Freezer (written and directed by Takashi Ishii, 2000).  Ishii started as a Manga comic book artist, and this film reunites him with previous collaborators, cinematographer Yasushi Sasakibara, and musician Goro Yasukawa. The clarity of shots, close-ups, and blending between scenes (including snow falling in lamplight) gives poetic beauty to a film about a young woman storing bodies in freezers!

But the confinement to scenes, largely in Chihiro’s flat  – a setting comparable to Repulsion (Polanski, 1965) – Polanski, incidentally, having influenced Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water – and the psychological distress inflicted on the previously buoyant Chihiro, her elfin-like vulnerability, lays the groundwork for the horrific change in her – ‘They’re so beautiful when you freeze them’.  It’s not so much the brutality she inflicts in her defence against the previous gang-rape members’ return, which disturbs, but the degree to which her mental suffering corrupts her.

Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki, Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998)  plays on deep-seated fears about death, destiny, and mental imbalance, and places it in the modern idiom. Skilfully, the medium of artefacts (video, telephone, photograph) are mostly used to depict aspects of threat and horror, while the ‘ordinary’ life of suburbia – school, work – continues.

A similar contrast is set up in Haneke’s recent Hidden (2005). The video curse ‘You will die in one week’ is more frightening for accumulating in piecemeal fashion, through anticipation, rumour, superstition.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Cronenberg’s films played on deep-seated anxieties about infiltration, physical vulnerability, mental disturbance (including Spider in 2002).  Here, in Ring, vengeance and threat is a psychological virus.  It works, too, on our fears about retribution from the dead, and Sadako’s mental link to the elemental power and mystery of the ocean stirs up further unease connected to the unknown.  Kenji Kawai’s unsettling music (inspired by Dario Argento’s Suspiria soundtrack) is used sparingly between moments of quiet and reflective build-up.

Ring 2 (1998) succeeds a little less, because strangeness in this sequel arrives more quickly, the disturbing experiences being more widespread and correspondingly more diffuse.  Another problem is that the information conveyed by the screenplay is necessarily retrospective.  The ‘exorcism’ in the final stages, is also over-elaborate.  But the essential vivid mythic drama – of loss and vengeance captured on videotape through psychic transmission – retains its power to unsettle and horrify.

A short story by Kôji Suzuki inspired Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002) which begins with creepy ambient music (Kawai again) and semi-identifiable imagery.  Otherworldliness is created through the grey zone scenes from the surveillance cameras at the apartment block, and credit must go to the cinematography of Junichirô Hayashi, and the atmosphere created from the flat itself, the drab grey, green, whites and browns, the rain and damp, and a combination of realistic set-backs encroaching on the affectionate relationship developed between Yoshimo, the mother, and her 6 year old daughter Ikuko (‘I don’t need anyone but you’ says Ikuko to Yoshimo).

In Dark Water a ‘Mimiko’ red bag, or a damp, dripping ceiling, can convey threat…the half-seen alone, isn’t, in my view, enough to transmit horror – as The Blair Witch Project (Myrick/Sanchez, 1999) strained to achieve – what’s needed, exemplified in Dark Water, is a counterbalancing reality of hope, normality, and depth of character.

Hideo’s film has a comparable mythic resonance and power to The Devil’s Backbone (Del Toro, 2001).

The ending is exquisitely tender, without escaping completely the real horror which remains.

Mark Kermode in Sight & Sound (August, 2005) is right to highlight the importance of the spirit world in Japanese culture, how this brings an added depth and dimensionality to films like Dark Water and Ring.  This would apply to Onibaba also.

I would stress the importance of emotional depth too, conveyed through characterisation, cinematography, and sound – which all play their part in a slick, but poetical, thriller like Freezer.  Only when these elements are focused, in harmony, and treated sparingly, real horror emerges, insinuating – not at the level of visceral sensation alone – to the heart, our human emotions, our fears.

(This piece previously appeared on http://www.pennilesspress.co.uk/)

~

William Park received a Major Eric Gregory Award (1990) and Hawthornden Fellowship (1991). His poems have appeared in Poetry Review, The Observer, Critical Quarterly, The Rialto, Stand, Poetry Wales, Ambit, Poetry Durham and numerous magazines/anthologies over the past 25 years.  He has an MA in Writing and Reading Poetry (Liverpool Hope, 2003). His first full poetry collection was Surfacing (Spike, Liverpool, 2005).

OVERVIEW: Louis Malle

Tags

, , , ,

by Martin Heavisides

Though there really hasn’t been a time since the release of Ascenseur pour l’echafaud when he hasn’t been esteemed, I’ve always had the nagging feeling that Louis Malle has gotten less than his due as a filmmaker. (It goes without saying there are first-rate directors of whom this is much more noticeably true, such as Vera Chytilova and Lars Von Trier, but they tend to be provocateursLars particularly–whose work has a polarizing effect on audiences. With two exceptions, that’s never been Malle’s stylehe’s not at all unwilling to challenge and shock viewers, but seems to prefer sliding the needle in gently so the impact’s only gradually absorbed by the system.

The other problem for Vera Chytilova is that she’s a woman–which remains a pretty good way, if you’re not a shallow artist or simple propagandist, to have your vision persistently discounted. Couldn’t she have arranged this matter better at conception or in the womb? Whether or not a man could have made Daisies, Panel Story or The Apple Game, if a man had they’d be judged very differently.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDMfC0CjCSA

The two exceptions in Malle to the above rule are Zazie dan le Metro, which is as stylistically innovative as Daisies or Black Moon, but nowhere near as pinpoint-sharp and integrated in its vision; and Black Moon, surely the least popular of Malle’s major films, and my personal favourite–but then I’ve always been a sucker for movies that read like a collaboration between Lewis Carroll and Hieronymus Bosch.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tW-i3v9ZJNA

Perhaps the trouble is how difficult it is to slot Louis Malle. Make the same film too often and with too little internal variation and your name’s likely to be Woody Allen on the festival circuit; but even above average critics and scholars may have a bias towards directors whose films are different but not too different one from the next. There’s a continuity of tone and style through the whole body of Louis Malle’s work, but it takes patient and subtle divagation to discover; I’m not about to pretend I could sum it up in a phrase.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5GlSRXuUFE

A fair number of Malle’s films can be paired in terms of style, theme, visual ambiance; Murmur of the Heart and Milou in May; Lacombe, Lucien and Au revoir des enfants; My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on Forty Second Street; but it’s hard to find a triplet and a fair number remain stubbornly singular. The closest match to Ascenseur pour l’eschafaud is Atlantic City, but they differ rather profoundly in style and narrative strategy. Apart from Viva Maria! which I haven’t seen, the only period films he’s made are The Thief of Paris and Pretty Baby. These difffer profoundly, not only in tone and style but in comparative merit; The Thief of Paris is a great film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olxqe0CQ7W0

Phantom India and Calcutta perhaps make a pair, but strictly speaking they’re a single project that, for logistical reasons, was split into two films (or into eight if you count the seven episodes of Phantom India as individual films, which is not implausible). I saw Calcutta twice back in the glory days of the reps in Toronto, when every night of the week pretty much you could see a masterpiece somewhere, and some nights you had to choose between several. I’ve never seen another documentary like it. Koyanaasqatsi I suppose employs a similar strategy, but there’s no insistent musical soundtrack to give forward impetus to Calcutta’s slow accumulation of images and life impressions. Only Malle’s seamless editing directs and guides the viewer in any way. Whoa! what a film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoDa1bCqIUs

I saw most but not all of Phantom India at Harbourfront. Much chattier, but the avuncular narrative voice-over Malle supplies is unusually open-ended, voicing puzzlement often, looping back on itself with critical reflection, asking far more questions than it answers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcoXpdtEQVk

These are not easy films to manage to see, which may be just as well for those who prefer just the movies with actual (fictional) storylines thank you very much. They’re crucial however to anyone who wants to understand Malle’s career, not just enjoy the individual movies that make it up; he’s said more than once that Phantom India and Calcutta changed the way he approached film: made him adopt a style more freeform and open to accidental inspiration, less plot-bound and over-determined. This seems evident enough in Murmur of the Heart, perhaps a little less so in Lacombe, Lucien. Black Moon? listen, without the voyage of discovery and self-discovery that produced Phantom India and Calcutta, Malle most likely would never even have dreamed of making Black Moon–so those who wish he hadn’t know exactly which subcontinent to blame.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fta1BBfP24

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1QrAty1h6c

Maybe this is the reason–assuming I’m not just imagining it–for the lacuna in Louis Malle’s reputation. If there were general agreement that Michelangelo was a magnificent artist–all but that damn Sistine Chapel–overblown; incoherent; no system to it at all, what was he thinking?–there might be conspicuously less enthusiasm for his body of work altogether, since the Sistine Chapel is a touchstone by which his achievement elsewhere can be measured. Black Moon may be that crucial in the oeuvre of Louis Malle, and it may be that people who haven’t wrestled with that film (or even had the opportunity to wrestle with Phantom India and Calcutta) miss crucial aspects of all the others, not because of direct parallels necessarily, but because of indirect and subliminal currents of association flowing from those films to all the rest.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDoYI0sS-yk

~

What is it with Martin Heavisides and film? Sure, sure, a regular website on the history of cinema. Even an unproduceable screenplay (With a Bullet–“Fargo meets the song stylings ofLeonard Cohen.”)who doesn’t have one of those? But a whole fantasy film career presented as a piece of CNNF (at Sein und Werden and as a chapter in Undermind)? Isn’t this getting a little excessive already. That said, he seems to have Louis Malle cased.

House of 1000 Corpses – Let’s Put on a Show

 

 

HOUSE-OF-1000-CORPSES

I’ve always loved the mutation of childhood entertainment, the circus, the fairground, the fairytales and nursery rhymes, the dolls and wind-up figures, into fantastic horror. There is vast potential for a sinister re-working. The climate is right, the topography perfect. With one brushstroke an innocent and inviting landscape can be transformed into a hellish terrain.

House of a 1000 Corpses does just that. It’s a white hot ball of energy blasting its way through a disarticulated set of themes. While it sticks to the genre-rules of the slasher film (the kids stuck in a desolate area, the psychotic family, the push and pull of every possible escape that’s then snatched away, the possibility of one surviving victim…) it runs through a gamut of sub-genres to produce, not another epigonic nod to the classics, but something unique and fun. Rob Zombie takes the original horror story and turns it into a show, a cabaret, in which every instrument of fear will play a starring role – clowns, serial killers, porn gore, mutilation, satanic ritual, insanity, reanimation… And metamorphosis, something Zombie plays with quite a lot, not in a metaphysical sense but literally, through old-fashioned sawing off and sewing back together.

The plot is, then, an old favourite. It is the night before Halloween. Four twenty-something’s, travelling round Texas researching the strange world of sideshows, stop for gas at a petrol station only to find a most fortuitous place of wonder. Captain Spaulding’s curiosity shop (as seen on TV) is filled to the rafters with the things one might find in a Victorian hospital or medical museum. Spaulding himself, played triumphantly by Sid Haig, appears to be half clown half beast. He’s not, of course, but he takes the form of the childhood entertainer, the water-squirting, balloon-morphing clown, eats it and then shits it out right into the gutter. He’s a filthy, lascivious, gritty old man and by far the best character in the film. When he invites the four on his ‘murder ride’ – a fairground carriage run on tracks through a corridor flanked on either side with animated waxwork models of serial killers – they learn of Doctor Satan, a surgeon from the local psychiatric asylum who was found guilty of atrocious medical experiments on his patients, hanged, buried and subsequently missing.

Back on the road with their minds full of intrigue and their hands clasping Spaulding’s free take-out chicken, they go off in search of the place Doctor Satan was hanged. Only to come across a hitch-hiker in the pouring rain. Cue the angel of death, played beautifully and irritatingly by Zombie’s partner Sherry Moon. The bait is eagerly snapped up by the two men in the group who invite her into their car, moments before they get a flat. And, of course, no spare. Zombie has gone for all the clichés in this film but the clichés are, of course, what the horror fan wants. Even if it’s just so we can shout at the screen – don’t go down there alone you fool. Her uncle Rufus, of course, has a tow truck, so why don’t they go back to hers and wait.

Ladies and Gentleman, may I introduce the Firefly family. Here we have Momma Firefly, mutton dressed as vamp, eater of men, women and children (probably), Grandpa, a clown without the greasepaint, Otis Driftwood, son and philosopher/artist, Baby, the fox, Rufus, possibly bordering on sane, Tiny, the giant burn victim, and last, and least, the bairn in formaldehyde. (Most of the names are characters from Groucho Marx, as explained in the sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, for those who didn’t notice.) Invited to stay for dinner at this most significant time of year, the events of the last night of the house guests’ lives begin to unfurl. All in the name of art and a jolly good show.

The film is pretty much divided into two parts, above and below, sanity and insanity. A real live family creating bloody theatrics with anyone who gets in their way, right on top of the demonic other-world, the hell below. Dr Satan is the pulse. He is the myth/history and topography of the wilderness around the house and of the film itself. He is the foundation on which the Firefly’s and their victims are based. He is the more supernatural element. He is the mechanism beneath the stage and the point at which rationality ceases to exist.

Rob Zombie knows how to put on a show. A musician foremost, he knows when silence speaks volumes and when music is the lubrication for that perfect sequence of events. Every good horror film has that defining moment for its fans. That instant when the shock or the suspense or the sheer horror take you out of your seat and into the film, the moment your mind will play and replay over and over. If the director has got it right, any accompanying music to that scene will have a Pavlovian effect, so the song/score will never again have a passing effect on its listener.

For me, that old favourite ‘I Remember You’ by Slim Whitman, sends shivers down my spine now, whenever I hear it. It recalls slow-motion horrors and a writhing danse macabre. There is also Baby Firefly’s faultless mime of Helen Kane’s ‘I wanna be loved by you’ forcing the unwilling spectators to be part of the razzle dazzle while wondering what, exactly, waits for them in the wings.

Zombie has made a film that cuts out the moral nonsense and seduces you with evil, leaving you in no doubt as to which side you’re rooting for. He is a showman and this directorial debut is a near-perfect piece of slasher show business, a film that’s filled to its boot tops with viscera and belly-laughs.

House of 1000 Zombies, dir Rob Zombie, 2003

(written for the anthology Butcher Knives and Body Counts, Dark Scribe Press, 2011)