Rewards exist for those who can handle Von Trier’s depressing tale
by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Even though he is the one filmmaker capable of shaking up the establishment, Lars Von Trier is more than a provocateur. His films are portraits of the human condition through the prism of depression. At his best, Von Trier can be devastating (Melancholia, Breaking the Waves). At his worst — and I’m including his infamous Cannes press conference here — the Danish filmmaker is so detached he feels alien.
Von Trier’s magnum opus, Nymphomaniac, is much closer to his trademark despair than the pornographic spectacle he was set to make. It’s also funny, illuminating, poignant and often mischievous. On the flip side, this is a film with little discipline and plagued with some perplexing decisions, the casting of Shia LaBeouf being one of the lesser ones.
Von Trier regulars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård provide the framing for the story. Gainsbourg is Joe, a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who has been beaten within an inch of her life by… someone. Joe is rescued by Seligman (Skarsgård), a monk-like figure whose entire knowledge of the world comes from books. Joe “rewards” him for his help with a detailed recitation of her sexual history.
Part I focuses on young Joe (Stacy Martin, who looks nothing like Gainsbourg). Raised by a loving father and distant mom, our hero is fascinated with the notion of sex and is willing to do the research. Joe loses her virginity to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf, surprisingly solid), who would become the one constant in her life, for better or for worse. The girl’s curiosity becomes her clutch when her dad dies and she tries to cope with her enduring sadness.
In Part II, an adult Joe finds herself unable to find the same satisfaction she once got from intercourse. Joe engages in riskier sexual activities to quench her thirst. Her pursuit turns costly at every level, but she is not the repentant type. In the biggest reach of the film, Joe’s insight on human behavior gets her a job as a loan shark enforcer, but turning into a professional manipulator would lead to her downfall.
Unlike most previous Von Trier efforts, Nymphomaniac is pro-women. Joe’s decisions may not be sound ones, but at no point is she condemned for making them. Her problem is not that she likes sex too much. It’s that she is miserable in every other aspect of her life. The film works as a mirror for our morality issues, but leaves the audience to wrestle with the subject by itself.
The absorbing narrative takes a tumble towards the end. The enforcer plotline is preposterous and feels forced to set up an even more absurd resolution.
While the plot may end up disappointing you, Nymphomaniac is full of wonderful scenes that single-handedly justify the film’s existence: Uma Thurman’s passive-aggressive meltdown is gut-busting for all the wrong reasons, while Jaime Bell as a straight-laced S&M aficionado puts Fifty Shades of Grey to shame. Joe’s earlier sex escapades have an endearing quality, the joyfulness of a coming-of-age movie that would never occur.
Four hours of Nymphomaniac may be hard to take. I would suggest splitting the experience in two, or be prepared to spend the rest of your evening curled up in bed in a fetal position.
Empire of Dirt
During the opening 20 minutes, Empire of Dirt is as fierce and compelling as they come: the challenges of a single mother trying to provide for her child, but failing to protect her from the bad influences around them make for a very sympathetic pledge. After that, though, the film descends into an average Lifetime Movie of the Week.
Winner of a number of inexplicable awards, such as a Genie for Best Screenplay and Best Canadian Film Award at TIFF 2013, Empire of Dirt has good intentions, but is handicapped by mawkish melodrama and poorly drawn characters.
Following her teenage daughter’s drug scare, Lena (Cara Gee), an aboriginal youth counselor, returns to the maternal home she was kicked out of years ago following an unexpected pregnancy. Stuck between a frosty relationship with her mother (Jennifer Podemski) and an openly hostile rapport with her offspring (Shay Eyre), Lena reverts to her old ways, including alcohol binges, drug use and the bad boy who got her pregnant in the first place.
It’s all a bit after-school special. The heavy-handed dialogue (by first time screenwriter Shannon Masters) is distracting and does nothing to flesh out the supporting roles. The talented Jordan Prentice (In Bruges) is wasted as Lena’s best friend, while Luke Kirby (Take This Waltz) never gets a handle on his small-town lothario role.
Lena is a self-righteous former addict, and her rehabilitation is mostly cosmetic. In the hands of a stronger actress, the role could have carried the movie, warts and all. Unfortunately, Gee is a bit too green to pull it off and director Peter Stebbings (of the much better Defendor) fails to bring up the urgency of the situation.
There is a good movie somewhere in Empire of Dirt, but this isn’t it. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo