Sundance 2014, Day Six: Surprise, it’s Nymphomaniac!

Sundance 2014, Day Six: Surprise, it’s Nymphomaniac!

My sixth and final day at the Sundance Film Festival was accompanied by many a wild theory. The source of speculation, chiefly among critics in attendance and on social media, was what “highly anticipated” film had been selected for a secret screening at the Egyptian Theater. Interested parties tossed out educated guesses all day. Would it be Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s delayed follow-up to Moneyball? Would the programmers at Berlin allow Wes Anderson to show The Grand Budapest Hotel ahead of its opening-night screening there? Would Harvey Weinstein allow any of us to see Snowpiercer yet? A few foolishly hopeful souls even suggested that Inherent Vice, from Sundance alum Paul Thomas Anderson, could be the mystery movie. Dreamers dared to dream.

But as the invited filed into the Egyptian last night, an “18 and older” sign out front teased what many had already inferred: Lars Von Trier, that magnet of cinematic controversy, had come to Park City in spirit—though certainly not in body, given his fear of flying—by way of an advance screening of his latest lightning rod, Nymphomaniac. The catch, and it was a big one, was that U.S. distributor Magnolia had brought only part one of two. And unlike, say, Kill Bill, the first portion of this auteur opus in no way functions as a single, standalone movie. I walked out acutely aware that I had seen only half a film, and wondered if maybe I should have just gone to the premiere of The Raid 2, which by many early accounts is great, sickeningly intense, or both.

But Nymphomaniac (Grade: Incomplete) still felt like an event, its singular, Von Triersian strangeness a nice antidote to the middle-of-the-road pleasantness of some of the week’s other official selections. (It was a fine, unexpected note to end the festival on.) Even in its supposedly tamer American release cut, the film was as explicit as advertised; Von Trier serves up a near constant buffet of exposed flesh, all of it filmed with a matter-of-factness that seems deliberately anti-titillating. Yet the most shocking thing about Nymphomaniac, with its cock-shot montages and carnal chatter, is how playful and flat-out funny it often is. Has Von Trier finally emerged from the cloud of depression that fell over him a few years ago, resulting in back-to-back bummers Antichrist and Melancholia?

As if intent on puncturing the inflated seriousness of those prior films, the director begins Nymphomaniac with a gorgeous, moody survey of a snowy back alley, then abruptly disrupts the stark beauty of the sequence with the deafening blare of German metal band Rammstein. (The moment plays like a gag—not the film’s best or last.) Found bruised and battered in the street, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls into the care of a kindly stranger (Stellan Skarsgård), whom she then regales with stories of her sexual awakening and addiction; Von Trier cuts back and forth between the pair’s occasionally absurdist conversation and scenes of a young Joe (Stacy Martin) bounding from one casual hookup to another, beginning with a deflowering by a callous peer (Shia LaBeouf, seemingly cast for his douchiness, not in spite of it).

Oftentimes, Nymphomaniac resembles a kind of academic spoof of Euro-art smut, tracing—to paraphrase Rochelle Rochelle—one woman’s strange, erotic journey. Von Trier surely has a headier agenda, but it’s hard to say what he’s after without the privilege of the big picture. Is the film another intentional provocation, poking at folks who might be agitated at the very idea of this director making a movie about female sexuality? Given Von Trier’s claims that his heroines are extensions of himself, meant to embody his own issues and vulnerabilities, is Joe’s confession of sin—she repeatedly calls herself a “bad person,” despite the insistence to the contrary of her companion—a reflection of the director’s own self-loathing? Only a look at the entire four-hour movie could clarify its position. For now, there’s still plenty to admire about Nymphomaniac—including its Godardian doodling, as when Von Trier literally counts off the number of pelvic thrusts during Joe’s first time, and an appearance by Uma Thurman that’s amazingly, uncomfortably hilarious. (Welcome, “whoring bed,” to the cinephile lexicon!)

Nothing else I saw on this final day in Park City could quite compete with Von Trier’s lively half-epic, though the other two on my schedule were not without merit. Whitey: United States Of America V. James J. Bulger (Grade: B) is a thorough, overwhelming dissection of the Boston gangster’s trial. Joe Berlinger, who co-directed the great Paradise Lost series, reveals a tangled web of competing interests, investigating the rumor—fervently denied by the eponymous subject himself—that Bulger was an FBI informant. Whitey isn’t half as emotionally or dramatically involving as Paradise Lost, but that’s largely because it has no clear figure of identification—beyond, perhaps, the family members of Bulger’s victims, whose righteous anger enlivens an often-dry examination of legal maneuvering.

Murder and its aftermath were also the subjects of Cold In July (Grade: C+), a tonally inconsistent thriller about a Texas family man (Michael C. Hall) who’s drawn into a world of violence after he shoots and kills a young home invader. Director Jim Mickle, back at Sundance after last year’s Midnight gem We Are What We Are, has become an accomplished architect of suspense. And for a while, his latest is thrillingly unpredictable, mashing together elements from A History Of Violence and Cape Fear, while keeping audiences guessing as to where it’s headed. Eventually, however, Cold In July has to reach its destination—and the film’s upshot didn’t just disappoint me, it put a bad taste in my mouth. Without saying much more, it’s a weird path to forge, from the thorny moral inquiries of act one to the pandering genre thrills of act three.

Anyway, that’s it for me in Park City. By the time you read this, I’ll be back in Chicago. As a final note, here’s a shot-from-the-hip top five for Sundance—the movies that looked, in the sleepless stupor of my festival experience, like real keepers.

1. Whiplash

2. Boyhood

3. Only Lovers Left Alive

4. Listen Up Philip

5. Blind