Nightmares and daydreams about women and power

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Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II (R). Director: Lars Von Trier. Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater. 231 minutes

In a World (MA). Director: Lake Bell. Starring: Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Fred Melamed, Michaela Watkins, Demetri Martin, Ken Marino, Alexandra Holden. 93 minutes

If you don't feel ill by the end of provocateur Lars Von Trier's four-hour exercise in cinematic cruelty Nymphomaniac, there's something wrong with you. Conversely, if Lake Bell's charming and witty comedy In a World ... leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling that you just can't shake, well, hey, you're only human. Both feature strong female characters, whose femaleness puts them at odds with a male-dominated world. Nymphomaniac is a nightmare; In a World ... an inspirational daydream.

Nymphomaniac [review contains spoilers] begins in darkness; after long moments the camera opens its eye on a decrepit alleyway, and locates a woman (Gainsbourg) lying battered and unconscious on its damp floor. She is discovered there by a world-weary man (Skarsgård), who rouses her and guides her to his apartment and revives her with tea and a warm bed. As they begin to converse, the woman, Joe, identifies herself as a 'bad' person, and to convince the man, Seligman, of this fact, proceeds to share with him her story.

As the title suggests, it is a story marked by innumerable sexual encounters with random men. Often it is explicit, and thoroughly unpleasant. But Volume I is also decidedly humane. It dedicates much screen time to the relationship between young Joe (Martin) and her father (Slater), a doctor and dilettante-mystic who is one of two men whom Joe has loved in her life. The other is Jerôme (LaBeouf), an on-again, off-again partner, her love for whom perplexes and almost subdues the promiscuous Joe.

Things become much uglier in Volume II. Joe has grown depressed after losing sensation in her genitals, and her addiction to sex takes a masochistic turn. It is difficult to justify all of the silly atrocities Von Trier serves up here. But the film is nothing if not thoughtful. It frequently cuts back to Joe and Seligman in the present day, as they digress on topics as diverse as fishing, art and literature, love, death and religion. Joe's incontinent sexuality becomes a mirror for all of Western culture and the human condition. And vice versa.

All of this culminates in a pointed statement about societal double standards regarding gender and sex. It is expressed first verbally by Seligman, who has been father-figure, counsellor and pastor to the self-loathing Joe throughout her story, and is then brutally underlined in the film's shocking final moments, when the kindly confidante Seligman turns predator. Joe's life of sex may have depleted her, but at least it has always been her choice. In dramatically missing this point, Seligman denies Joe's dignity, and reduces Woman to Object.

To recover from the ordeal that is Nymphomaniac, walk reeling from the cinema and across the foyer to the cinema where In A World ... is showing. It, too, offers a thoughtful consideration of the continued marginalisation of women in modern society. But it prefers affirmation to degradation. Writer, director and star Bell's film is set in the world of film-trailer voiceover artists. Her character Carol is a talented up-and-comer in a male-dominated industry. Literally, she is fighting to have her voice heard.

Her greatest rivals in this are her father, veteran voiceover artist Sam (Melamed), and Sam's smarmy protégé, Gustav (Marino). All three are in the hunt to land a gig voicing the trailer for a highly anticipated 'girl power' fantasy series that looks like a hammy knock-off of The Hunger Games. Sam is fond of Carol, if patently dismissive of the idea of a female voiceover artist. But when it looks as though she may represent a genuine threat to his professional territory, the gloves come off.

It would be accurate to describe this as a feminist film, but fairer to describe it as human. A number of subplots give it humour and heart. Carol intervenes to steady the marriage of her sister (Watkins) and brother-in-law (Corddry). A family dinner at which Sam displays the extremes of his absurd fatherly aloofness, is imbued by sadness by the mention of his daughters' dead mother. Sam's trophy wife Jamie (Holden) reveals hidden depths. Carol shares a sweetly awkward romantic interest with her producer Louis (Martin).

As auteur, Bell has delivered an extremely touching film, fun and thoughtful and bulging at the seams with perfectly honed and delivered gags. As social satire it has plenty of bite, too; even Carol's successes are underpinned by cynicism. But its conclusions and resolutions are almost unfailingly positive and uplifting. Both Nymphomaniac and In A World ... deal intelligently with the subject of women and power. But in choosing affirmation over bleakness ultimately In A World ... is the more empowering.


Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Lars Von Trier, Nymphomaniac, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater

 

 

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Joe's incontinent sexuality becomes a mirror for all of Western culture and the human condition.Yes, and vice and vice- err? No pun intended.
Annoying Orange | 09 April 2014


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