Film reviews: Nymphomaniac | Stalingrad 3D

Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark in Nymphomaniac. Picture: Contributed
Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark in Nymphomaniac. Picture: Contributed
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LARS von Trier’s bleak portrayal of sex addiction is controversial only for how boring it is, writes Alistair Harkness

Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II (18)

Directed by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin

* *

Early on in Nymphomaniac: Volume I, the first of Lars von Trier’s two-volume, four-hour opus about a female sex addict (Charlotte Gainsbourg) doggedly recounting her escapades to a fascinated confessor (Stellan Skarsgård), the film digresses into a lengthy explanation of fly-fishing. It’s one of many non-judgmental analogies her audience of one makes over tea and pastries as she regales him with deliberately grim tales of her life-long quest to procure sexual gratification after first discovering her “c***” (the film likes using this word) as a two-year-old.

Other digressions include discussions of cake forks, Fibonacci numbers, mirrors and churches, but the fly-fishing one feels particularly onerous. Tied to a description of a game of sexual one-upmanship in which Joe (Gainsbourg) recalls how she once stalked a train carriage with her best friend to see who could screw the most men before they arrived at their destination, it’s a groaningly cutesy, criticism-inuring attempt by von Trier to symbolize the way in which he repeatedly baits us with his cinematic provocations.

Of course, such a brazenly simplistic acknowledgement of his own didactic filmmaking style makes it easy to imagine von Trier cackling away to himself at how clever and arch he’s being. But the frequent trouble with his impish approach to filmmaking is that for every Dancer in the Dark or Dogville or Melancholia, there’s a Manderlay or an Antichrist – sophomoric films that aren’t nearly as transgressive, shocking or interesting as Lars would have you believe. Nymphomaniac falls very much into the latter camp.

Like two-year-old Joe in the film, von Trier is a toddler discovering his private parts, flashing willies, bums and vaginas at us – both literally and figuratively – in the hope that we’ll either be outraged, bored or both.

Each volume begins with a disclaimer. What we’re about to see, we’re told, has been released with von Trier’s “permission”, but is really an “an abridged, censored” version of his film Nymphomaniac, the full version of which apparently runs to five-and-a-half hours and includes many more digitally enhanced sequences of hardcore sex between the principal cast (contrary to early reports, the actors didn’t engage in real sex with one another; their faces were instead digitally grafted onto the bodies of adult film stars).

From this bogus attempt to fan the flames of non-existent controversy – do we really believe for a second von Trier couldn’t have made the full version available if it was really that important to him? – we get extended, beautifully composed shots of raindrops, swiftly interrupted by a jolting blast of death metal as Joe is discovered lying battered in an alley near the home of Seligman (Skarsgård).

How Joe ends up in that alley is the point to which the story will eventually work its way back, but over the course of the next four hours – should you choose to watch both films back-to-back – we’re party to her confession as she unburdens her so-called “sins” (her word) on the kindly seeming Seligman.

The confessional structure – with the aforementioned digressions – is intended as a distancing device, one that allows von Trier to comment on the action in order to make the explicitness of what’s on screen deliberately banal. There’s no titillation in Nymphomaniac; everything is presented with a kind of gynaecological detachment, something von Trier then throws in our faces by turning a Volume II revelation regarding Seligman’s inability to relate to Joe’s stories into a comment on our own apparent prudishness.

Relief from such tedium comes mainly in the form of tittering at some unintentionally terrible acting – most of it from Shia LaBeouf. Perhaps taking his lead from von Trier, the erstwhile Transformers star may currently be in the process of reinventing himself as some kind of real life artist-cum-provocateur, but for all the sexual explicitness on display in Nymphomaniac, the only thing he really exposes is his absence of talent.

Forced to deliver lines like “take your knickers off” with a baffling British accent, he plays Jerôme, a young man first introduced administering a rough, unpleasant sexual awakening to the under-aged Joe (played in the majority of the Volume I flashbacks by Stacy Martin, similarly vacant). As their paths repeatedly cross over the course of both films, LaBeouf looks increasingly ill at ease, especially compared to the likes of Jamie Bell (on hand in Volume II as a sadist who introduces Joe to the euphemistic delights of a “silent duck”) or Uma Thurman (responsible for the two-part film’s one brilliant scene as a wronged wife confronting Joe about her husband’s infidelity).

Elsewhere, Christian Slater does himself no favours as Joe’s beloved father, a man obsessed with the souls of trees, who ends up in a sanatorium, suffering from delirium and rolling around in his own excrement – a fairly unpleasant image, granted, but a fairly apt symbol of von Trier’s accomplishments here.

Stalingrad 3D (15)

Directed by: Fedor Bondarchuck

Starring: Thomas Kretschmann, Mariya Smolnikova, Pyotr Fyodorov, Yanina Studilina

* *

The chance to experience flame-engulfed soldiers charging at you in 3D doesn’t seem like the best reason to transform one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War into a special effects-enhanced blockbuster, but here’s a film that does it anyway.

A big-budget Russian attempt to repurpose the old-fashioned war epic for the Call of Duty generation, Stalingrad wilfully ignores Russian cinema’s own hugely influential canon of Second World War movies (without Elim Klimov’s devastating Come and See, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan wouldn’t be half as powerful), plumping instead for Michael Bay-style mayhem.

Revelling in gruesome imagery and simplistic characterisation, director Fedor Bondarchuck delivers an explosion-heavy account of the six month siege of the titular city, told from the point-of-view of five soldiers charged with defending a strategically useful apartment block from advancing German forces.

It’s dull, cliché-ridden stuff. Each soldier is allowed a maximum of one character trait – and even then it takes the arrival of a damsel in distress (Yanina Studilina) to tease this out by supplying each with a reason for fighting. Proceedings are further marred by a strange framing device that sees a Russian aid worker narrate the story years later to a group of German students trapped under some rubble in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 earthquake.

Only Lovers Left Alive (15)

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Mia Wasikowska

* * *

It makes sense that eternal hipster Jim Jarmusch would make a film about vampires: with their refined tastes, nocturnal habits, pallid skin and justifiable need to wear dark glasses at all times, they’re a perfect fantasy reflection of his own rarefied sensibility. With Only Lovers Left Alive he seems intent on using the tropes of this horror subgenre to draw a battle-line for a culture war, one in which he aligns himself with his protagonists, Adam and Eve, a pair of book-devouring, music-loving, blood-sucking sophisticates who moan about the impoverished imaginations of the zombie masses and denigrate artists who crave popularity.

Played by Tom Hiddleston, all rakish and depressed, and Tilda Swinton, full of crepuscular exoticism, they deadpan their way through a range of topics – the brilliance of 17th century composer William Laws, the banality of YouTube – while languishing around Tangiers and Detroit, hanging out with a decrepit Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) in the former, and doing drive-bys of Jack White’s childhood home in the latter.

Interspersed with literary name-dropping, vinyl fetishism and the occasional blood-thirsty feeding frenzy, it all adds up to a droll restatement of intent for Jarmusch, one that’s cool in places, too studied and stilted in others, but hard for fans to argue with.