The enfant terrible of European cinema, Lars Von Trier, spoke at the ongoing Venice International Film Festival yesterday for the first time since 2011. He addressed the media through a tele-conference after his latest work, Nymphomaniac, Parts 1 and 2, were screened, and much like the Amitabh Bachchan show back home in India, the helmer phoned a friend several times when he was foxed by reporter’s questions.
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In 2011, the Cannes Film Festival expelled him from the city following his remark on Hitler. “I sympathise a little with him”, he had said during a press conference following the screening of his movie, Melancholia. Although quipped in jest, half the world took umbrage. He had since then been going around with a band on his mouth and not spoken in public.
Yesterday, Von Trier appeared on a large monitor to announce that he would be returning to the small screen with an ensemble series, The House That Jack Built. To be shot in English, it will be aired in 2016.
Some saw this as an indication of Von Trier turning his back on filmmaking.
The House That Jack Built, though, is not the first time that the Danish director is getting into television. In the mid-1990s, he had helmed The Kingdom for the small screen. It was an absurdist eight-part drama which unfolded inside a decaying hospital in Denmark.
During the years that followed this television serial, Von Trier had made some brilliant cinema, such as Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark and Dogville. One of his earliest masterpieces was Europa Europa, captured in haunting black-and-white frames.
His latest, Nymphomaniac, in two volumes, each divided into many chapters and stretching to five-and-a-half hours -- called the Director’s Cut -- was screened yesterday to packed auditoriums and standing ovations. The movies -- which can be easily described as pornography -- were meant to shock, rather than titillate, much like some of the helmer’s public utterances and phobias. One of these is the fear of flying that keeps him “imprisoned” within the European continent.
Nymphomaniac begins with a man finding a badly bruised woman on the street, and he takes her home, and what follows is a long night of revelation by her about her active sexual life, narrated in absolute graphic detail. There is plenty of sex and plenty of full frontal nudity. Von Trier does not hide anything at all -- provoking the censors in several countries to use their scissors. But what we saw at Venice was an uncut version.
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“I am just a bad human being”, says Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) at the outset to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). At 15, Joe loses her virginity to an Englishman, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), and a competitive rivalry with a classmate later leads her to a night of sexual conquests on a running train. The prize for the winner with the most number of men is a bag of chocolates, but more importantly, it is the girls’ egos that push them into this wild sexual fling.
Seligman, an avowed celibate, atheist and voracious reader, goads her to continue with her story, which she does telling him that it was not love which drove her to sleeping with tens of men, but pure lust. Although, she never wanted to sleep with a man more than once, she ends up in a relationship with Jerome and even has a child by him.
This, in any case, does not stop her from warming the beds of other men, including those married. There is one brilliant scene when a cheated wife (played by Uma Thurman) shows up at Joe’s place with her three little boys for a dramatic confrontation with the strayed husband.
Joe also reveals to Seligman how she could never hold on to a job, because of her sexual trysts with as many as 10 men on a single night. But in contrast to all this is her tender relationship with her father, and the black and white scenes of his horrible death shake us as it does Joe.
As the night wears out, Joe avers how her sexual conquests never got her excited, how she was always lonely.
As one critic had pointed out, “In male-written literature, Don Juan-type characters have most often been portrayed with a certain amount of envy and admiration but with the moral caveat of having lived ‘empty’ lives. With Joe, there is no sense of fun, of teasing, of enjoying her powers of manipulation. Nor does she exhibit genuine flirtatiousness or joie de vivre. Part of this no doubt stems from Von Trier's own heaviness and melancholic tendencies (he had suffered serious bouts of depression), although he has directed genuinely funny work, especially The Idiots. The whole temperature of a film can be heavily influenced, even determined, by the heat a particular actress provides, so one can only wonder what Nymphomaniac would have been like had von Trier sought and found an equivalent of, say, Julie Christie in Billy Liar, Eva Green in The Dreamers or Jennifer Lawrence in Almost Anything”.
Finally, unlike Bess in Breaking The Waves, who finds spiritual bliss, Joe remains purely in the realm of the physical. And like Bess and other Von Trier heroines, Joe suffers. We saw this in Dancer in the Dark, we saw this in Dogville.