Tag: stellan skarsgard

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Bess (Emily Watson) and Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) get married even if Bess’ highly devout religious community does not welcome strangers into their lifestyle. While Jan is away to work in an oil rig, a terrible accident occurs which leads to his paralysis. Bess, convinced she has a direct line of communication with God, feels guilty because she wished for Jan’s return prior to the incident. One day, Jan tells Bess that she ought to find a man, make love to the stranger, and go back to tell him all about it. Bess goes through with her spouse’s wish eventually. Soon, she notices that with every sexual act she engages in with another man, her husband appears to get better. She figures that maybe if she gets together with enough partners, Jan would be able to walk again.

There are few movies that chill me to the bone and “Breaking the Waves,” written by Lars von Trier and Peter Asmussen, is one of them. Part of its genius is that it works on several levels. It can be interpreted as a love story that teeters between sanity and lunacy. It can also be seen as an anti love story, a complex case study of religious indoctrination and what it does to the mind and one’s reality. Either way, it is a compelling piece of work.

Good actors can deliver two performances simultaneously. It is all the more impressive that Watson manages to deliver four performances. All of them, at least in terms of framework, could have been laughable under less capable hands. We get Bess the simple girl, Bess the married woman, Bess the God, and Bess the prostitute. Though each performance can be categorized quite easily, I admired how she dares to mix two or three of them at once. What results is a character I had never encountered before—and I was not prepared with what to do with or how to understand her best.

For example, we watch Bess—a married woman physically and a simple girl in reasoning—pray to God and we see her respond using the voice of what she believes her god might sound like. It might appear dangerously comical on paper, especially in a bleak drama, but Watson makes it work by giving Bess an unhealthy mix of innocence and desperation—she is a simple girl but she loves her husband so much that she will do anything, even if it puts herself in danger, not only to prove the fact but also to better his state of health. The choices she makes in how to play Bess feel fresh. Since the character is also unpredictable, it becomes a challenge to keep up with the subject’s state of mind.

We get to know the Scottish community through the way they treat those who they label as outcasts. There are three types in the film: Jan the new outsider, Dodo the old outsider (marvelously played by Katrin Cartlidge—a great sounding board for Bess’ struggle), and Bess, not only considered to be emotionally and psychologically feeble, she is also married to the new outsider. The lack of trust of the community to these figures are communicated in various ways: through silence, a judgmental look, or what they do or not do when one needs help. We are meant to respond to the community’s lack of moral compass—even if they believe their actions get a seal of approval from a higher power.

I do not and will probably never understand why some people feel that the film, directed by von Trier, is mean-spirited. Is it because the characters go through horrible ordeals? Is it due to the underlying commentary toward religious groups? How do these people define the word “mean-spirited” exactly? I think the movie is bold in that it is willing to go through unexplored territory to get a reaction from the audience while maintaining a razor-sharp focus on what it is hoping to accomplish. It is rare that we receive a high-class, high-level filmmaking that commands an original vision. They should be celebrated rather than condemned.

I say “Breaking the Waves” is a very human story. It focuses on the people who care about Bess—her husband, Dodo, the local doctor (Adrian Rawlins). We care about Bess when she is being hurt or in danger. It is not about hatred or violence. It is about love. Love, after all, is what compels the subject to do the things she ends up doing.

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.


Amistad (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) and other African slaves, taken from their land, kill their Spanish captors while the ship, La Amistad, is on its way to Northeast America. The slaves are eventually captured and find themselves in trial for murder. Meanwhile, Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård) and Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) attempt to search for the right lawyer for the case in order to gain the Africans’ freedom. Enter Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), aware that winning is close to zilch if he approaches the case from a typical angle, wishes to argue that the men are “stolen goods” and therefore bound by specific rules already set by the courts.

“Amistad,” written by David Franzoni and directed by Steven Spielberg, thrives on stunning visuals and attention-grabbing performances. The first scene shows how the slaves take control of the ship. While the action occurs in the dark but there is something beautiful, almost poetic, about the way the darkness complements the mutiny and murder.

The recurring theme that the slaves are treated essentially animals makes a powerful statement. For instance, the way a man holds a chair like a lion tamer because he is afraid of being attacked by a colored man, the manner in which kids poke at the chained Africans with sticks as if they were street dogs, and the lack of scenes in which the prosecution attempt to communicate, even through gestures given the language barrier, with the men and women on trial. The aforementioned images are important because they communicate to us that people with dark skin are less than the white man. These images are found either on the side or in the background so it never feels as though Spielberg is hammering us over the head in order to get his point across.

The courtroom scenes are shot with an orange-yellow glow. The color palate remains hopeful despite the fact that gaining the Africans’ freedom is a seemingly insurmountable uphill battle. We all know what will eventually happen because the Supreme Court’s decision has a direct connection to the American Civil War, but my attention is piqued nonetheless.

Anthony Hopkins’ performance as former President John Quincy Adams is sublime. His ten-minute speech toward the end touched me personally. It made me want to learn more about American history especially in terms of what our founding fathers went through in order to establish the building blocks of this country. Hopkins, despite looking like his character is about to fall over every time he takes a step forward, manages to highlight Adams’ strengths: the cunningness of a fox and the heart of a lion.

However, I wasn’t convinced that “Amistad” has reached its full potential. While it is moving and the case is revolutionary, for a film with a running time of about two hours and thirty minutes, it should have had more complexity. We spend most of the time with the defense but barely any time with the prosecution (the lawyer played by Pete Postlethwaite). At most, we see the latter looking shocked or angry or confused. Their emotional outbursts might have been more interesting if the audience is provided some more in-depth background information on how they approach the case. But perhaps its one-sidedness is on purpose, like image of the Queen of Spain (Anna Paquin), a child, jumping up and down her bed instead of governing her country.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a journalist for the “Millennium” magazine, had just been ordered by the courts to pay Hans-Erik Wennerström (Ulf Friberg) of an amount that would almost render him bankrupt as remuneration for libel. Meanwhile, Henrick Vanger (Christopher Plummer), one of the most successful businessmen in the country, received yet another picture of a flower from his niece’s killer. Aware of Mikael’s financial situation and public embarrassment, Henrick contacted the journalist for a job involving a bit of investigating and hopefully solving a crime that happened forty years ago. Based on the novel by Stieg Larsson, the cold detachment of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” seeped through the pores of every frame yet the screenplay by Steven Zaillian found a way for us to care about Mikael and his eventual partner in solving the mystery, the magnetic and enigmatic Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). There was something great at stake for the both of them. Henrick claimed that, by the end of the investigation, he would give Mikael hard evidence that would lead to his exoneration while Lisbeth was driven by her need to catch a man who had gotten away with sexually molesting and killing women in cold blood. As they became closer to the identity of the killer, the film’s mood felt more portentous and menacing, reflected by more intense winter storms and increasingly sparse score. I was most fascinated with the scenes dedicated to Mikael asking the Vanger family (Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, Geraldine Jame) all sorts of questions about what happened or what they thought happened to Harriet. Despite the picture not having a lot of obvious chase scenes, there was an adrenaline rush because the chase took place in our minds. We looked at the suspects and ascertained the discrepancies among the pictures provided by Henrick, what the family members had to say about the matter, and how they reacted when certain questions moved toward a more sensitive subject. Watching Mikael inch toward a conclusion was like observing a doctor touching his patient ever so carefully and finding his way to the parts that hurt. We also had a chance to see why Lisbeth was the perfect partner for Mikael. She had her share of difficulties like having to report to an unethical guardian (Yorick van Wageningen), using our heroine for sexual favors every time she needed money. Despite being declared as incompetent to live on her own by the state, Lisbeth was very smart and calculating. She was more than capable of extricating herself from a man who thought he could get away with illicit and immoral activities because he was in a position of power. With Craig’s world-weary, humiliated gaze and Mara’s unpredictable bursts of intense anger, the picture was effective as a procedural and a character-driven work. But what I admired most about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” directed by David Fincher, was its courage in taking the liberty to slightly deviate from the original film for the sake of being a better movie. For instance, compared to “Män som hatar kvinnor,” directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the ending that this version offered provided more insight on how tough and lonely it was to be in Lisbeth’s leather jacket while luring us to wonder what would happen next.


Thor (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Powerful ruler Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had two sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with two very different personalities. Thor couldn’t wait to be king of Asgard. Wielding absolute power, in a symbol of a throne, was at the top of his priorities. Loki, on the other hand, was the quiet one. His actions were preceded by thorough thinking. However, there was brewing jealousy from his end. When Thor and his friends (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander) had unwisely broken a truce and caused a new war against the Frost Giants, Odin banished Thor to Earth to learn about humility and what it meant to be a great leader. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Thor” was unexpectedly comedic. I actually enjoyed the comedy, especially when sarcastic Darcy (Kat Dennings) was on screen, more than the action scenes themselves. Watching the action sequences, although supported by grand special and visual effects, failed to get me to become emotionally invested. I believe it had something to do with the fact that Thor’s evolution from a bellicose warrior to a more controlled leader wasn’t fully convincing. What did being romantically involved have to do with becoming an effective king? From what I gathered, he simply grew weak in the knees whenever he was next to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a fellow researcher of Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the three people Thor met when he landed on Earth. And given that love was the answer to everything, I failed to understand why she would be attracted to him other than the fact that he had a nice set of abs and biceps. She was supposedly smart but her intelligence was thrown out the window the moment he took off his shirt. It was insulting. The director didn’t take enough time, other than one or two short scenes, to explore the relationship between the two lovers. Jane was supposed to be our conduit so that we would ultimately care about about the title character. As for Thor’s friends in Asgard, I wondered how they could stand him. Surely being a prince wasn’t enough to earn their loyalties. After leading them to a suicide mission and narrowly escaping, none of them questioned Thor’s ability to make smart decisions. Didn’t they have minds of their own? Instead of weighing the complexities of the somewhat cheesy story, I found myself focusing more on spotting other Avengers characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and references to the Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man.” What “Thor” lacked was the crucial journey designed to win us over. When he was on Earth, he didn’t learn what it meant to be human. He just developed a crush. It’s a bad sign when we find ourselves feeling nothing when Thor faced incredible danger.

Boogie Woogie

Boogie Woogie (2009)
★ / ★★★★

“Boogie Woogie,” based on the novel by Danny Moynihan, attempted to explore the many personalities of the London art scene. There was Gillian Anderson and Stellan Skarsgård as a couple addicted to purchasing art, Heather Graham as an ambitious blonde who wanted to run her own museum one day, Joanna Lumley as an older woman who was struggling to keep up with the bills so she decided to sell Christopher Lee’s valuable collection, Jaime Winstone who believed her video self-portrait was art, and Jack Huston who used his artistic persona to seduce women. Despite the many things happening in the film, Duncan Ward, the director, failed to balance the characters in a meaningful way and to convince me why it was worth investing my time to observe these colorful bunch of people. All of them were self-centered, lacked a sense of what was right or wrong, and they were proud of being predators. They were always out to outsmart each other in hopes of filling a void inside of them. They found themselves exhausted day in and day out but they couldn’t take a moment, do a bit of introspection, and perhaps to attempt to make an actual change. They left a bitter taste in my mouth and the distaste never went away. I hoped that as the film went on, my opinions of them would change but there was no redeeming factor in any of them. There was no element of surprise and I felt like there was a wall between me and the characters. Perhaps the most harmless was the girl who loved to rollerblade played by Amanda Seyfried. But even then I had no idea who she was and what she was doing in the film. Was she even interested in art? There were too many characters and not one character was fully explored, so in the end I pondered what the point of it was and couldn’t come up with any. As for the movie’s title, it referred to Piet Mondrian’s painting. The painting was rarely shown and we only saw about four characters (out of fifteen to twenty) to actually see it. And when they did comment on it, it was very shallow and their words felt meaningless. I thought the painting was the main element that could help to place the many personalities in the same room but it didn’t. In a nutshell, sitting through “Boogie Woogie” was a maddening and painful experience. It glorified money, sex, and drugs instead of attempting to explore why depending solely on these these things make up a life not worth living.