by wjw on April 29, 2014

I’ve been splayed in front of the pay-per-view watching films about decadence, and the first thing I noticed was that European and American filmmakers handle these things in completely different ways.

MV5BMjIxMjgxNTk0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjIyOTg2MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_First up was The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s biopic of financial sleazeball (“and motivational speaker”)  Jordan Belfort.   Belfort lost his job on Wall Street and went to work in a boiler room cold-calling working people in order to sell them penny stocks in pump-and-dump schemes.  It was Belfort’s particular genius to realize that instead of using these pathetic tactics on working stiffs, he could victimize stupid rich people and make a lot more money.  He rounded up his friends— a crowd of thickheaded losers and honest-ta-god criminals— and founded Stratton Oakmont, at one point the largest Over-the-Counter brokerage in the country, with over 1000 brokers.  During his reign at Stratton, Belfort and his cohorts banged hundreds of hookers, snorted pounds of cocaine, swallowed ‘ludes by the handful, and otherwise behaved in ways pretty much guaranteed to put them in the crosshairs of the FBI.  While wrecked on mad amounts of dope, Belfort totaled his Ferrari, crashed his helicopter, and drove his yacht (formerly Coco Chanel’s) into a giant storm and sank it before being rescued by Italian frogmen.

Scorsese assures us that it was a complete blast.  All bad behavior in this movie comes with a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack.  We see Belfort snorting coke off a hooker’s anus, babbling incoherently on quaalude, and hosting parties in the Hamptons that would have Jay Gatsby dropping his jaw with envy.  It’s one giant orgy devoted to the proposition that impulse control is for suckers.  It’s glamorous in the way that only Hollywood can be glamorous.

I saw this movie, I really wanted to be Jordan Belfort.  Nonstop fun, no meaningful consequences, beautiful people and endless cash everywhere you looked.  It’s not just decadence, it’s Hollywood decadence.  There’s not even a mention of the victims.   Nobody in Hollywood cares about them.  It’s all about the beautiful people having fun, like a beer ad featuring the Swedish Bikini Team, only with a more varied menu of intoxicants.

And then, well, there’s Europe.  Perhaps the party’s ended over there and I haven’t got the memo.

MV5BMjA3Njc5MjI5Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTY3Mjg3MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_Nymphomaniac, Parts I and II, is the third installment of the Depression Trilogy by that melancholy Dane, Lars von Trier.  And by Depression, we don’t mean 1929, we mean the director’s own mental state, which he examines with considerable wit and invention, if at far too vast a length.  (I missed the first movie, Antichrist, but the second is reviewed here.)

The European release was four and a half hours long, but in English-speaking countries the film was split into two— which is a good idea, because you can completely skip the second film and not really miss a thing.

Von Trier is talented and interesting enough to attract international talent, in this case Willem Defoe, Uma Thurman, Shia Labeouf, Jamie Bell, and Christian Slater, as well as members of von Trier’s stock company, like Charlotte Gainesborough, Udo Kier, and Stellan Skarsgård.

The film opens on a rainy night, when Seligman (Skarsgård) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainesborough) beaten bloody on the pavement.  He takes her home, puts her to bed, gives her a nice hot drink, and listens to her tell the story of her life as a sex addict, in which she is mostly played by brave young newcomer Stacy Martin.

Joe is the product of a fairly normal English home, very close to her loving father and less so to an emotionally distant mother (who disappears early and is not missed).  By her teens she’s having a lot of sex, and even joins a girls’ club devoted to one-night stands and chanting “Mea Maxima Vulva” while a member plays Satan’s tritones on an organ.

Ere long, Joe has organized her life around her obsession, having sex with 8-10 men every night.  She’s so eroticized that she’s even turned on by watching her beloved father die of cancer.

Joe, in her conversation with Seligman, insists that she’s depraved and evil.  Seligman, a detached intellectual and devotee of Izaak Walton, compares her to the Compleat Angler, and when that simile runs dry, to a Bach fugue.  Neither of them seem willing to state what seems obvious, which is that Joe is neither evil nor a Bach fugue, but is just fucked up.

Joe wants her lifestyle to be viewed a courageous form of female empowerment, but it’s only empowering if she’s in charge, which she’s not.

Along the way we see a lot of sex, in which the genitalia of porn actors are digitally and seamlessly attached to the bodies of film stars.

There is no rock ‘n’ roll sound track.  (Von Trier was a founding member of Dogme, after all.)  The sex scenes aren’t seductive or pornographic.  People who are in the hands of an irresistible compulsion are not attractive, they’re just objects making rhythmic movements in beds, in toilets, in the great outdoors.

Von Trier’s camera can be witty as well as clinical, and some parts of the movie are funny, though often in a mordant way.  Von Trier may be a depressive, but depression leads him into interesting corners of self-examination. In Melancholy, he thought about annihilation with the same thoroughness with which Nymphomaniac thinks about sex— more thoroughness, in fact, than you’d probably enjoy.

And von Trier knows about you.  He knows you’re watching a movie called Nymphomania, and he knows he’d better deliver the nymph and the mania and the genitalia.  He’s in knowing, winking, smirking collaboration with his audience and their expectations, but he’s still making an art film, not an “art film.”

Which brings me to Part II, which might as well be titled “Joe Loses Her Mojo.”  She can’t enjoy sex any longer, so she is led to more extreme forms of sexual expression.  At which point I lost interest.

I think what happened is that von Trier really couldn’t think of a way to end his movie. Watching a sex addict grow older and less attractive and more and more desperate wasn’t to his taste, or maybe wasn’t going to sell his film.  Or he fell into the trap of pornographers everywhere, which is that once you’ve described all the sex you can imagine, you still have to top yourself, so you end up describing the sex you can’t possibly imagine.  (“In a Sade play,” as Nabokov remarked, “they call the gardner in.”)

So we are supposed to accept that a lifetime of shagging qualifies Joe to turn criminal and run an ultraviolet extortion gang.  Which leads to a number of unbelievable scenes and then the movie’s violent finale.  Which led to my cascading disappointment.

The last couple hours, even von Trier was exhausted by his subject matter.  All the wit disappeared, and the jokes, and the film wearily trudged on to its finish.  In the rain.

I don’t know what to compare it to other than Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, in which Jean-Pierre Leaud had a 20-minute monologue facing the camera, while the English subtitles read only [Untranslatable French Puns].  (Wow.  “Sherman, set the Wayback machine for 1973!”)

Which means that you can skip Part II altogether, secure in the knowledge that it would only lead you into von Trier’s more depressing head space.

Von Trier can take a titillating subject and turn it into a depressing comment on himself, whereas Scorsese can take the depressing subject of Wall Street villainy and make it titillating.

What movie would you rather be in?

TCWriter April 29, 2014 at 5:47 pm

What movie would you rather be in?

Given the economic devastation wreaked by Wall Street’s excesses, I’d suggest we’ve been “in” the sequel to the Wolf of Wall Street since 2008.

And really, it hasn’t been that much fun.

Foxessa April 30, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I’d rather be living in a nature documentary featuring alligators than in either of those!

It did x my mind that Whedon was attempting to do his own version of La Dolce Vita with his Much Ado, speaking of Decadence. La Dolce Vita was more more interesting by multiples.

wjw April 30, 2014 at 10:58 pm

I’ll skip the alligators, but I’d definitely take the documentary about coral reefs. Unless it’s one of those they show on Shark Week, in which case I’ll pass.

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