Month: April 2014

“Nymph()maniac: Vol II” and “The Missing Picture” Doubleheader

Zeus bless the Landmark Theatres of America.


On Nymph()maniac: Vol II:

For me, there is less to say about II than I.

A three year time-skip is hilariously all it takes to age Stacy Martin into Charlotte Gainsbourg (not that Charlotte Gainsbourg is an old-looking woman — by comparison, Stacy Martin has the white skin of a baby). Though the swap of actors at that point makes sense, given the film’s sperm whale dive into savageness and viciousness after Gainsbourg takes over. I doubt Martin could have survived any more than she did. How Gainsbourg survived is another question entirely.

Anyhow, Gainsbourg is subjected to some awful, awful, demeaning, savage sexual violence. Acting the “sex scenes” (a literal descriptor at this point — sexual acts are happening, but have little to do with the titillation and steaminess that have come to be associated with the phrase) could not have been too much more easygoing than the actual thing, Jesus Christ. And aside from the sex, there is an almost constant thread of benighted loneliness. I do not know how you can even feel right paying someone for this performance. “Hey Charlotte, I’ve just dragged your psyche through the corrosive acid-filled pits of hell. Will pre-tax nine hundred thousand dollars be alright with you?” “Hey Charlotte’s body double, we agreed on a hundred dollars per bruise. Don’t nickel and dime me; I only see four of ’em. Bleeding don’t get you extra!”

Joe’s body begins to fall apart and rot, especially at her sexual organs. The close-ups of the wounds made me feel very light-headed.

Frequently, I had to withdraw from immersion in the film and tell myself that the makeup artist was doing a great job. There are a few scenes, or I should say intermissions because of how brief they felt, evoking feelings of beautifully trenchant loneliness (e.g. when Joe stares at a tree atop a mountain,  a few other shots hard to describe out of context), but the majority of the film lacked the sensitivity and varied assault of the first film. I especially missed having fewer Seligman metaphorical interjections in comparison to the first part.

In my opinion, the ending unravels and destroys Skarsgård’s character with what I felt was a cheap and inconsistent stunt. Anyhow, this film is gold for armchair psychologists who would like to speculate about Lars von Trier’s captivating mind.


On The Missing Picture:

The Missing Picture is a documentary illustrating the despotism of the Khmer Rouge regime, mostly through a combination of archival footage with clay figurines and dioramas constructed by the narrator and director.

Whereas Joe from Nymph()maniac  tends to go for blunt, severe opinions, The Missing Picture pleads for wariness towards purity, zealousness, and extremism. The Missing Picture is not an enjoyable film, to say the least, (it horrified me even more than Nymph()maniac, because of the scale of the Cambodian genocide), but serves as a harrowing rebuke against groupthink (and we need those every once in a while).

The filmmaker in me finds technical quibbles that I hope to keep in mind if I ever make something again. I was reminded of another recent documentary about an Asian genocide that left an agonizing imprint in my mind, The Act of Killing. Using some arbitrary, ill-defined language that I’m sure versed cinema theorists have words for, The Act of Killing is more of a character-following documentary (the characters follow an arc of development) than The Missing Picture, which is more of an incident-recounting doc. In my opinion, The Act of Killing is one of the finest films of this decade and is top-to-bottom stronger than The Missing Picture. There is less tonal variation in Missing to keep the viewer unconsciously engaged. The scene transitions feel less seamless. In fact, I think the whole film could have been structurally better organized. It hews too consistently to a “reminiscence of antebellum good times” followed by “description of bad Khmer Rouge 70’s reality.” This gets very repetitive. This also muddles the temporal thread that the film sometimes seems to follow — we progress through the 70s, only to be shifted back into the 60s for extended periods of time. There are a few jarring interludes and odd metaphors. The rule of the Khmer Rouge is compared to a dance club, and we cut to young people dancing under neon lights to throbbing bass. After a vignette related to the Apollo space program, the clay figurine representing the narrator flies through a technicolor sky with blissfully outstretched arms , but getting that dose of elation was tantamount to feeding a starving animal too much too soon after rescue. In the latter half of the film, sporadic jumping to the modern day and irregular repetition of imagistic motifs and verbal phrases suggests false endings such that viewers are given room to relax and exhale with shots of the aftermath present, only to be dunked back into the abyss of the genocidal 70s.

I criticize the film for being unitone, and I also criticize its more hopeful scenes. If that seems unfair to you, I agree. Ultimately, I think it is still better to err on the grimmer side to accurately capture a patch of history that is, well, rather uniformly grim. 

Now, finally to why I think The Missing Picture ought to be watched — for one, it touches on the randomness of birth circumstances (socioeconomic class, ethnicity, culture), and how large of an effect probability has on the extent that a person can exercise his supposed free will. This precariousness of birth is something that humans birthed into Western privilege frequently need to be reminded of, I feel. I balk at how humans put up with and even occasionally survive such extended amounts of oppression, when many of us have gotten used to struggling to get up for work five weekdays in a row, complaining about having to climb stairs when elevators are out of service due to the amenities and comforts we have been conditioned to expect.

Usage of the figurines was definitely a great touch that made the film feel less like a film and more like a living, breathing, suffering museum exhibit. The figurines lent a distance to the film that made you sit back and wonder, good fucking lord, how could this genocide have come to pass, been actualized into a real piece of history? How terrible do things have to get for deaths in the family to feel inconsequential? How fragile families are, even when they consist of strong, striving people. How the hell did the narrator survive? How did he find the will to survive when the rest of his family was dead?

The narrator says near the end, “Words are hard to find.” It is a pithy distillation of the film. This comes on a related note to something he says earlier, along the lines of contemporary theories being insufficient and inadequate for explaining how terrible events in history come to progress, filled with retrospective bias. For those who have survived, words, answers are hard to find.