Under the Skin (2013), Director: Jonathan Glazer, D.O.P: Daniel Landin
Under the Skin (2013), Director: Jonathan Glazer, D.O.P: Daniel Landin
Almost three years now, the Danish auteur’s film made quite the stir even before it was released. That’s the funny thing with sex; it initiates a reaction when the word is simply spoken out loud. The film, the third and final installment of Von Trier’s depression trilogy, revolves around Joe, a self-confessed Nymphomaniac who tells her story from age 5 till 50 to the seemingly asexual yet extremely intrigued Seligman.
Opening with a Neue Deutsche Härte track from the German band Rammstein, a track almost as wild as the film itself, that preps the viewers for the rollercoaster of a movie they are about to watch. The film opens with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), knocked unconscious in a dirty empty alley. She is found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who takes her to his home offering help and shelter. Joe then recounts the events of her life that led to her discovery in such a vulnerable state, never failing to emphasize on the fact that she is the cause of her own fall, and that she is – in her own words – an evil person. What then follows is a four-hour long epic; that involves sex, violence, and all the human emotions that go in between.
Despite Von Trier’s well established artistic – and even personal – persona as a provocateur, I believe it is safe to say that none of his previous films has garnered the same amount of controversy as Nymphomaniac did. Beginning with the release of the film’s name, and declaring that it would revolve around “a woman who discovers her eroticism”, the director did get some raised eyebrows, since in a world where almost the entire film industry caters to heterosexual male viewers and their fantasies; it is still problematic to make a film completely about female sexuality. As more material began to be released, the controversy, and even the anticipation, began to grow. And though the film got a number of negative reviews that considered it an exploitation piece, or even a misogynist film, I still believe that Von Trier’s message was unorthodox yet feminist at heart, and here is why:
It’s not very often that female sexuality is handled so clearly on screen. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mesmerizingly cold performance generates one of the greatest forces controlling this film. Instead of wallowing in guilt and shame about her sexuality, she seems to have accepted herself, and her dangerous appetite. In a society where slut-shaming is a part of everyday media; seeing a character that not only accepts, but even thrives unapologetically in her sex life is always refreshing.
When Steve McQueen released his drama Shame (2011) it also faced controversy, yet it appeared to be based solely on showing a flaccid male penis on screen. Sadly the case with Nymphomaniac is not only the nudity. A major dilemma remains with the film’s unapologetic approach at exploring the wild sexual adventures of its lead female, her wildness that often causes harm to other people is almost celebrated all throughout the film, after all “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” In her pursue of pleasure, Joe ventures into some much tabooed territory, which brings us to the next point.
Some of the major controversy formed around the film was caused by the director’s strong, and sometimes even plain bizarre, political views that are spawn all throughout the film’s dialogue. From postulating as to whether using the word “negro” is politically incorrect or simply society’s way of dealing with an unresolvable problem, to exploring some very distorted views regarding the legitimacy of abortions, the man rarely misses a taboo. I have to admit, though I do not agree with most of Von Trier’s views explored in this dialogue, there is something incredibly fascinating about watching a filmmaker being utterly honest in front of his audience. It reestablishes the role of cinema as an expressive art form not limited by societal taboos or governed by partial laws. On the silver screen, nothing is prohibited, and Von Trier knows this better than anyone.
Although the film got some negative remarks regarding these particular segments of the dialogue, claiming them to be “pseudo-intellectual pauses between the porn”, I find these sequences completely unrelated to intellect. It is social commentary in its barest forms, and it raises some much required speculation about the fundamentals of our society.
How often do you see a porn film where they compare the number of thrusts during sex to Fibonacci’s numbers? The answer, in case you were wondering, is never. Despite Nymphomaniac’s countless sex scenes, it rarely materializes as sexual or even slightly arousing, as it all seems very methodical, and even though the film shows a continuous effort to wander into some extremely explicit sexual territory, it seems to almost constantly return to its original philosophical ground. The main storyline is the relationship that develops between Joe and Seligman, not the promiscuous innumerable relationships that Joe recounts. Eventually, the viewers will find themselves a part of a highly compelling conversation that explores quite the range of topics, from music, to mathematics, to politics, without ever ceasing to impress, and sometimes even shock, its listener.
The fact that Von Trier used body doubles and CGI for filming the hardcore scenes without having the actors carry out any of the acts themselves blurred the line even further for those who considered Nymphomaniac nothing but porn. But then again how often do you see a porn film that in itself mocks the way society deals with sex?
Von Trier’s approach to explore the sexual side of humans on screen surpassed the long-held stereotypes of Hollywood; the film simply rids itself of the scented candles and lingerie, and unapologetically aims for the raw human emotion, utterly deconstructing the psychology of each and every one of the characters. Nymphomaniac reaches deep into human relationships, baring the core beliefs of it characters, and entertaining its viewer with equal measures of shock and awe. The film’s promotional line alone was “Forget about Love”, and we truly did for four entire hours. Surprisingly enough, the loveless adventures of Joe turned out to be much more relatable than the superficial and corny romance represented in a major portion of the film industry.
One might learn a lesson or two from “The Little Organ School”, a club formed by a younger Joe and her equally promiscuous friends in their youth. Their main goal was to rebel against “the love fixated society”. Of course it sounds extreme, but it forces its viewer to wonder whether we see the same amount of love represented in the media in the real world? Are humans equally kind and loving to each other as they are devoted to idolizing romantic relationships?
In the beginning of the film, a very simplistic idea is formed about the characters, one that is based solely on the fundamental moral standards of our society. Joe is the guilty nymphomaniac, Seligman the decent older gentleman, and the rest of the characters complete the spectrum. Whether it’s out of a mischievous urge to frequently prank his viewers, or a genuinely bleak view of the human qualities, Von Trier manages to simply shift the dynamic completely and gradually during the film. At the beginning of the final third of his film, the viewers are suddenly confronted with the fact that Joe, despite her promiscuity, her mischief, and even her illegal business, is in fact the moral warrior of this story. Though offering an enlightening story in film is not exactly the newest of ideas, hundreds of films have done it in the past and hundreds will probably do it in the future, however I believe it is rather rare for any filmmaker to go as far as Nymphomaniac. After all, it requires quite the daring artist to try to convince his audience to sympathize with pedophiles, but then again that’s exactly who Von Trier is.
In conclusion, Von Tier has always been a demanding director. His films require a certain amount of flexibility and a particularly broad-minded audience. Nymphomaniac is easily his most demanding film so far, yet with the right, unprejudiced, and not easily offended mindset, the film offers a dazzling experience seldom found in films. It is simply a ground breaking piece of cinema whose innovation needs to be, if not appreciated, at least respected.
Set in 1380 England, the film opens with a medieval priest delivering his sermon in an austere chapel filled with poverty stricken peasants. The young priest addresses the harsh ascetic life those villagers lead, proclaiming in his sermon that “This life simply has to be harsh”. This particular line establishes the general atmosphere of the film, and the strict life in which the entire story takes place.
Based on the novel “Morality Play” by Barry Unsworth, the film tells the story of a renegade priest called Nicholas, who joins a travelling theater company after committing a deadly sin that forces him to escape his village, and dissociate himself from the church. As the band members reach a small town in rural England, where a gruesome murder was allegedly committed by a deaf and mute woman, they find themselves challenged into reenacting the events of the crime, and in doing so; uncover some of the dark secrets regarding religion, temptation, and the political chaos of the time.
The Reckoning evolves from being simply a mystery tale by including fascinating glimpses into the real life struggles that faced actors of the time. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the film are the sequences presenting the actors’ rituals before taking the stage. Moreover the main dilemma facing the actors when attempting to replicate the crime is the fact that at the time theatrical plays were strictly limited to biblical stories. They find themselves performing one of the earliest morality plays of their time, and in accordance wind up becoming part of the actual deceitful play taking place in the village, as they fight to gain the truth and follow the righteous path of saving the poor woman accused.
Shot in various locations including Andalucía, Essex, and Wales, the skillful camerawork masterfully captures the beautiful scenery of all three locations. Additionally, various homages to the timeless cinematography of Sven Nykvist are found all throughout the film. Although the editing may appear sloppy at times, the addition of a haunting soundtrack, and an incredible performance from all the cast members, allow the film to captivate its viewers, relocating them into the highly religious yet greatly immoral medieval times.
Captain Fantastic (2016), Director: Matt Ross, D.O.P: Stéphane Fontaine
Få meg på, for faen (2011), Director: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, D.O.P: Marianne Bakke
The latest film from the Egyptian indie scene is a surreal piece of cinema that almost manifests itself as a fairy tale. Director Sherif El Bendary’s debut feature is a wild card that contains elements from his earlier work on a number of critically acclaimed short films (“Har Gaf Sayfan (2016)”). The film, an Egyptian French Qatari Emirati production (!), was first screened at Dubai International Film Festival, earning one of its leads the Muhr Award for best actor.
Based on an unpublished story by filmmaker Ibrahim El-Batout (“Winter of Discontent (2012)”, “El Ott (2014)”), and a screenplay by Ahmed Amer, the film tells the story of two misfits who embark on a journey across Egypt to overcome their ailment. Set in one of Cairo’s underprivileged neighborhoods, the film follows the life of its main character, Ali, a young man madly in love with his fiancé Nada, with the single complication of Nada being a goat. Due to his crazy obsession, he becomes the object of ridicule for the entire neighborhood. His mother insists on taking him to a spiritual healer to treat him from what she considers a curse. The healer ends up giving him three stones to throw away in Egypt’s three main waterways; The Nile, The Mediterranean, and The Red Sea.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim, a talented sound engineer who lives in the same neighborhood, is a depressed man who constantly suffers from seizures where he alone can hear an excruciating high frequency noise. He is obsessed with uncovering the meaning of this mysterious noise and spends most of his time trying to record it. In a final effort to get rid of the seizures, Ibrahim visits the same spiritual healer and is also given three stones and assigned the same task as Ali. When the two meet outside the “clinic”, they decide to embark on a journey together to accomplish their mission and hopefully acquire peace.
Taken at face value, the film is an absurd comedy that aims to entertain its viewer and perhaps garner a considerable amount of laughs at best. However, Ali, The Goat, and Ibrahim most certainly hides much more between its intricate layers. From subtly criticizing the effectiveness of the police in a hilarious scene where an officer aggressively attacks a teddy bear for drugs, to exploring themes of social acceptance and nonconformity, the film rarely misses a beat. Staying faithful to its message for most of its length, the film takes a stance against the harsh and intolerant attitude that has overcome modern Egyptian society. In the end, Ali and Ibrahim’s journey may not have successfully eliminated their eccentricity; instead it helped them thrive in their own idiosyncrasy, and ultimately accept themselves in spite of society’s disapproval.
With the help of a powerful cast that allows the story to reach its full potential, and a mesmerizing soundtrack that opts for the dramatic Daf in most of its tunes, the film elevates itself to be even considered somewhat of an art film. Judging by its highly unconventional story, and quirky sense of humor, it may not be a box-office success, but it certainly establishes its director as a new and talented figure in Egyptian cinema, whose future projects are to be eagerly anticipated.
Though two months have passed, 2017 seems to still hold a number of great films yet to be released. Of course, January and February have offered some powerful films to kick-start the year, mostly in the Horror/Thriller genre, and despite the fact that 2016 may have raised the bar for the genre with productions like 10 Cloverfield Lane, The VVitch, Under the Shadow, The Neon Demon and a lot more, it appears that 2017 may become an even bigger year for horror fans everywhere. However this list will not be limited to horror movies, as a number of other Drama films successfully grabbed the attention of many cinema goers and managed to land on everyone’s 2017 watch-list.
Raw (2016) opening March 10 to limited release
The first full length film for promising French director Julia Ducournau seems to have gained a lot of attention at a number of film festivals, most notably winning The FIPRESCI Award at Cannes film festival and The Sutherland Award at London film festival. The film which has been widely praised for its visual style revolves around a young vegetarian forced to eat raw meat as part of an acceptance ritual at school, however her taste for meat takes dangerous cannibalistic measures.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Ducournau opts for exploitative elements from the new French extremity, especially when it comes to the visceral and sexual aspects of the story. Accordingly, it’s certainly expected that the film will garner some negative reviews from the more sensitive members of the audience. Still, Raw proclaims itself as an original and captivating horror story that will hopefully add to the genre.
The Bad Batch (2016) opening 23 June
The second feature length film for Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour, the first being the critically acclaimed, and a personal favorite, A girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Her latest film, starring Jason Momoa, Jim Carrey, and Keanu Reeves, also deals with cannibalistic themes.
Set in a dystopian future, the film follows Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), as she navigates her way through the Texas wasteland, dealing with the remaining bizarre collection of humans in it. Retaining the avant-garde style of the director, the film appears to contain elements from her first feature, only on a bigger scale (and budget for that matter!). If the film is half as good as the director’s first, then it’s a triumph already.
The Transfiguration (2016) opening 7 April to limited release
This Indie vampire movie revolves around Milo, a young boy fascinated with vampires. His friendship with a young girl, Sophie, alters his psyche as he begins to confuse the line between fantasy and reality. The Transfiguration seems like an interesting psychological thriller, with some supernatural elements thrown in. As a fan of vampire movies, watching a film that elevates its product from a generic pile of CGI, to an intriguing character study that actually explores the human mind would be a pleasant and very welcome surprise.
Berlin Syndrome (2017) opening 20 April
The latest film from critically acclaimed Australian director Cate Shortland, Berlin Syndrome (2017), is a drama/thriller about a young Australian photojournalist (Theresa Palmer) visiting Berlin, whose romance with a local guy (Max Reimelt) turns terribly wrong when he locks her up in his apartment seemingly indefinitely.
Shortland’s work constantly explores the female psychology of its characters, her earlier work Somersault (2004), and Lore (2012) are two excellent examples of her creative capacities. Her latest film seems to be no different. Exploring the themes of obsessive love has been expressed in many films now, yet it is often a crazy female character that appears obsessed. Shortland is definitely not afraid of shifting the dynamics and hopefully her film will be as courageous as she is.
The Beguiled (2017) opening 30 June
Sofia Coppola’s latest film features an all-star cast; with Collin Farell, Nicole Kidman, Kristen Dunst and Elle Fanning. Based on the 1971 film of the same name, the story is set during the civil war, where a wounded soldier is taken in by a group of young women staying together at a girl’s school in Virginia. The events take an erotic turn as the entire house writhes with sexual tension, jealousy, and rivalry when the soldier begins to seduce them one by one.
The premise of the film is quite compelling, and judging by the names credited, the performances seem very promising as the entire cast is superb. It would be interesting to see Coppola’s vision of the story, and of course to enjoy the stunning cinematography of Philippe Le Sourd, since the trailer looks mesmerizing already.
The Discovery (2017) released 31 March
This Netflix Original production is probably one of the most authentic and innovative stories of the year. A scientist (Robert Redford) discovers scientific evidence of the afterlife, leading to a massive increase in the number of suicides. A year after his shocking discovery, a couple (Rooney Mara and Jason Segel) struggle to maintain their relationship as the truth of this revelation becomes questionable.
With its highly compelling premise, The Discovery runs the risk of failing to deliver, as it might waste its length in the build-up without an actual pay off. However, as an intrigued viewer, I shall keep my fingers crossed on this one and wait for, if nothing else, the beautiful cinematography this feature entails.
The Secret Scripture (2016) opening 19 May
Based on the novel by the same name, this period drama follows the life of Rose, played by both Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara, a mental institute patient who recounts the events of her life during the upheavals in Ireland in the 1920’s, analyzing how political and religious views affected her life at the time.
Directed by Jim Shreidan, and set against the beautiful landscapes of Ireland, like a number of masterfully shot recent films have lately (Under the Skin(2013), The Lobster(2015)), The film certainly shows a lot of promise, especially from its powerful cast, and intriguing screenplay. With The Ottoman Lieutenant opening this week, and The Promise opening in April, 2017 definitely appears like an interesting year for period drama fans.
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
Nothing much has been released about Lynne Ramsey’s latest project, except it stars Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a war veteran trying to save a girl from a sex trafficking circle, but his attempt goes terribly wrong. Apparently 2017 is the year for female filmmakers, as this is the fifth film by a female director on this list alone.
It seems like Lynne Ramsay is returning to the thriller genre, six years after her success with We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), an exceptionally fine film that certainly intrigued its viewers to await more from the talented director.
Loving Vincent (2017)
With 65,000 frames hand painted on over than a 1,000 canvases, Loving Vincent establishes itself as more than simply an animation film. The five-year project that required over a 100 painters working at studios in the Polish cities of Gdansk and Wroclow is to be finally released in 2017. The film’s idea and technique as the world’s first fully painted feature film was inspired by a line from one of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother: “We cannot speak other than by our paintings”.
Filmmaker and oil painter Dorota Kobeila was inspired to begin the project after a time of crisis in her life, in which she found solace in the letters of the Dutch painter. The film which will revolve around the life and mysterious death of one of art’s most renowned figures will probably be Vincent Van Gogh’s greatest tribute ever. As a film enthusiast and an art aficionado, I wouldn’t miss this film for the world.