Tag: nymphomaniac

Fifty Shades of Grey


Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

There is a character in Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” that sets the standard, at least in my mind, for a male sexual dominant. He is played enigmatically by Jamie Bell and the reason why we are fascinated by this man is because although his physicality is not at all domineering—he is neither especially tall nor muscular—there is a silent intensity about him, most often localized in the eyes, that makes one want to lean forward and yet still in a ready position to recoil in an instant just in case he did anything surprising—the kind that looks like it really hurts.

“Fifty Shades of Grey,” based on the novel by E.L. James and screenplay by Kelly Marcel, offers a character similar to Bell’s but one that feels slight by comparison. The title character, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), is supposed to be a sexual dominant looking for a willing submissive and yet one gets the feeling that he is only trying on daddy’s leather shoes. I found the attempt to be cute—for the lack of a better word—but two hours of playing pretend stretches the attention to its breaking point.

Let’s get it out of the way: The love or sex scenes are not titillating. Perhaps it might be for prudes or sexually inexperienced, but I do not belong in either camp. Part of the problem is due to the performers’ severe lack of chemistry. The other is editing. Focus not the act happening on screen but the way the scenes are put together. There is a lack of interesting transitions that tease the mind or the senses. We see skin, an article of clothing being taken off, a close-up of a face, and then more skin (most often the back). Sometimes we get heavy breathing that denotes a character being sexually pleased.

Why not allow the perspective of the camera to take its time gliding across the hills and valleys of the human body—of both the man and the woman? This film, obviously catering to women, does not treat the human body as a beautiful thing to be explored. It gives the impression that it is afraid to get real close just in case too close may translate as unsexy. Clearly, director Sam Taylor-Johnson needs to learn a thing or two from the great Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci (“Last Tango in Paris,” “The Dreamers”). Thus, the scenes often come across as not raw or dirty enough to be believable. Let me be clear: the picture need not show sexual organs because it is supposed to be a movie after all, not pornography, but I do require an erotic dramatic film to be sensual enough to give the impression that the audience is a part of the action.

Going back to a prior point: the actors’ lack chemistry. Dakota Johnson is the saving grace of the picture. I found her to be alluring because she almost completely embodies someone who we may encounter out there in the streets or in department stores. Those girls who are not convinced they are beautiful but they really are. Johnson also plays Anastasia with humor and a level of innocence. So when the character says something amusing, it feels effortless, like certain remarks Anastasia makes are what we come to expect from the kind of girl that she is. There is variation in how the actress plays her character which cannot be said the same about Dornan.

Dornan plays Christian sort of stoic most of the time which is supposed to communicate masculinity, I guess, but I found the approach to be predictable and boring. He does not make the character accessible. Halfway through I began to wonder if the twenty-seven-year-old billionaire was any good at his job. Just because he wears expensive suits, owns and drives helicopters, and knows the best kinds of wine to fit any occasion does not mean he is the best at what he does. He is supposed to be an entrepreneur, but we never see him working. What does his company do exactly?

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a title dripping with irony because I did not walk away from it knowing Christian more as a person. I grew worrisome that it is designed to be a trilogy. How can such a thing be sustained if the setup is weak in many respects? When the novelty and curiosity wear off, what else is there for us to chew on?

Nymphomaniac: Vol. II


Nymphomaniac: Vol. II (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Vol. II” is a superior second half because it strips away symbolic—some might say pretentious—talk that range from fly fishing to the Fibonacci sequence. It feels like a slightly more ordinary drama on a technical level but it is ultimately the correct approach because it gives the picture a chance to narrow its attention on the deeply damaged self-described nymphomaniac.

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) notices that although she has told plenty of details about her highly erotic sexual encounters with other men—most of them complete strangers—Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) is not at all aroused by any of it. When confronted by the fact, he tells her that this is exactly why he is the perfect person to listen to her stories. Unlike many, he is able to provide her an objective opinion of what she has and is going through. Seemingly satisfied with his answer, she proceeds to recall a time in her life in which she has completely lost all sexual sensation.

The portion of the film that grabbed me most is the subchapter called “Dangerous Men.” It is injected with a sharp but very uncomfortable sense of humor as well as a slight mix of horror. I say “horror” because I was afraid for the lead character’s safety. At one point I wondered what else Joe is willing to give when, really, she has nothing else to offer.

Since her husband cannot keep up with her sexual needs, they make an arrangement that will essentially free her to have sex with other men. Her choice is a black man wearing a green jacket who does not speak a word of English. In the motel room, two men enter the door: the man she had her eyes on and his brother-in-law. She is surprised by this because she had arranged to meet only with one. Still, she welcomes the opportunity.

It is a very funny sequence because the way it unfolds is far from anything many of us might come to expect. The writer-director uses humor in a subversive way: by taking the subject’s addiction to sex as a template and applying a droplet of comedy on the surface, we are given a chance to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation and at ourselves.

There is a level of irony to it. Through a solemn narration, we learn that Joe is expecting a sexy and steamy encounter since the language barrier will force them to focus on their bodies and to determine what they need from one another telepathically. Instead, it almost turns into some sort of farce. Body parts flopping about—utilizing quick close-ups of sexual organs from time to time—made me snicker and then laugh uncontrollably. The scene has a two-fold function: to take us out of the situation by creating a lightness and to leave us off-balanced for what is about to come.

It has been a while since I have encountered a character that shook me to the very core. K (Jamie Bell, absolutely brilliant here—my level of admiration to his performances matches that of Uma Thurman’s in “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I”) is one that I will remember for a long time. We learn close to nothing about him but the things he ends up doing with Joe made me watch some of the images through my fingers.

I don’t consider myself to be a prude, but the erotic practice of dominance and submission has never appealed to me. (Perhaps never will.) So to watch someone being whipped—causing welts, bruises, and wounds—and being smacked across the face—the writer-director ensures that we see it all unfold front and center… with the accompanying sounds—made me feel very uneasy. Still, I was unable to look away.

“Nymphomaniac: Vol. II,” like BDSM, is not for everyone. It is challenging, weird, sad, and at times confusing with what it really wants to say or be. But for me, just about everything about it works because even though the range of topics it wishes to tackle is not pretty, it encourages us to understand—maybe even empathize—with the lead character. When one considers to look at the big picture, Joe is an outcast. The outcast in us should be able to relate to her on some level.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I


Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

After picking up groceries from a nearby store, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) comes across a woman, bruised and bloody from what appears to be a beating, whose body is sprawled across a cobblestone path. He attempts to wake her and although she is conscious, he tells her that he will call an ambulance. The woman insists he does not. Seligman remains concerned so he takes her to his home so she can recuperate.

The woman tells the man that her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). When asked about her life, she casually begins to talk about the moment in time when she, as a little girl, discovered the pleasure that lies between her legs.

Written and directed by Lars von Trier, “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” has a strange calm about it despite having a protagonist with an unquenchable need for sex right at the center. Movies with a lesser vision and control tend to cheapen the subject but this picture commands a high level of elegance and grace. Because the approach is serious, we are piqued by the woman—her history, the way she thinks, and the manner in which she perceives herself—rather than judging and dismissing her right away.

A series of scenes like two teenage girls (Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Joe, and Sophie Kennedy Clark) having a contest on who can have sex with more men while aboard a train is handled with maturity, a pinch of humor, and sadness. We observe a pattern: Joe’s hesitance to flirt with complete strangers, Joe’s competitive nature taking over, the sexual act, and then Joe’s feelings of shame and empowerment. The girls regather. The pattern continues until they meet a man in first class who is on his way to see his wife.

Many of the situations, in my opinion, are not meant to be titillating. After all, though the majority of the picture consists of recollections, it always goes back to the older Joe who seems very unhappy, almost angry at herself for giving away too much of what she ought to have valued more. There are even a few lines which suggest that she thinks she is a bad person. But, I must admit, several times I was excited by the young Joe, wonderfully played by Martin with utmost solemnity and natural beauty, enjoying a man—sometimes a total of seven or eight men in one night—being inside her. However, I am not suggesting that the film is any way pornographic.

Yes, we see male and female genitals both in flaccid and erect states but there is a dignified story behind these images. To tackle the subject of nymphomania without showing the tools for sex or certain erogenous zones would have taken away an air of reality on some level. Not once do we feel that the writer-director is taking advantage of his actors. On the contrary, they are pushed to deliver good performances. For instance, I have never considered Shia LaBeouf, who plays one of Joe’s lovers, of really having a chance of becoming a “serious” performer. To my surprise, I enjoyed his interpretation of the character even though I was not completely convinced by his accent. To me, the magic is always in the eyes and LaBeouf has got it down.

“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” would not nearly have been so electric if Uma Thurman’s one scene had been excluded. She plays a scorned woman who learns that her husband is moving in with another younger belle. Her strategy: to follow her spouse to the whore’s abode—with her three young sons. The direction commands a masterclass confidence because the scene is allowed to escalate in tone and build emotional momentum to the point where it is very uncomfortable—reflected by the increasingly manic movement of the camera as well as characters who do not quite know how to respond to the livid wife.