Friday, February 28, 2014


American country music is the closest that the post-colonial United States have to a popular folk music of their own, an art form by the people for the people, speaking of hard lives, hope, love, family, heartbreak and pain. Probably that's why the best country songs are true blue-collar folk music, short stories or short films in musical form, that resonate globally beyond the American borders. And that's why the form makes perfect sense to help tell a love story from beginning to end, even if the setting is hardly the hard-bitten Appalachian mountains but rural Belgium, and the couple singing of their love isn't descendant of working-class immigrants but middle-class folk from Ghent with a passion for country and bluegrass.

     The fact is, if it weren't for the music, Belgian director Felix van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown would be an old-fashioned three-handkerchief-melodrama, disguising its narrative classicism behind a fragmented narrative that jumps between different periods of the couple's life together. The meet-cute between musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) actually takes place more than halfway through, and it is he who introduces her to the joys of the music and finds in her a kindred spirit in so many ways.

     But things are never that simple; The Broken Circle Breakdown actually begins when the couple's seven-year old daughter Maybelle (Nell Catrysse) is about to be diagnosed with a serious illness, with editor Nico Leunen's fluid time-jumping seeking for rhymes and contrasts that will illuminate Elise and Didier's love and the obstacles they have to surmount. A key theme of the film, based on an award-winning stage play co-written by Mr. Heldenbergh, is how the "American Dream" that has always been such a huge part of Didier's worldview is merely an illusion - there isn't one American dream but many, all different, and the intervention of 9/11 helps build a wedge between Didier's cheerful optimism and Elise's guarded pessimism, leading her to seek solace in religion at the hardest points. But America is really just a substitute for our own dreams and aspirations, and for the constant struggle between desires and real life that the film depicts with more or less commitment.

     In lesser or less attuned hands, The Broken Circle Breakdown could be a bummer of a sudser, but Mr. Van Groeningen is very sympathetic both to its actors and to the presence of music. The songs, mostly country and bluegrass classics from the repertoire of Bill Monroe, Townes van Zandt or Emmylou Harris, are used as both comment and narrative device, propelling the arc of the tale and used as shorthand for the emotions evoked. And both Ms. Baetens and Mr. Heldenbergh (a Kris Kristofferson lookalike if there ever was one) are extraordinary, holding the film's demanding emotional arc together without any apparent effort. For all that, take away the music and the editing and The Broken Circle Breakdown loses part of its charm and appeal - which suggests that Mr. Van Groeningen and his co-writers made the right choice. The music is what lifts the film and makes it just more than a curio.

Cast: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Catrysse
Director: Felix van Groeningen
Screenwriters: Carl Joos, Mr. Van Groeningen, Charlotte Vandermeersch, from the stage play by Mr. Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama
Cinematography: Ruben Impens  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Bjorn Eriksson
Designer: Kurt Rigolle
Costumes: Ann Lauwerys
Editor: Nico Leunen
Producer: Dirk Impens (Menuet Productie and Topkapi Films)
Belgium/The Netherlands, 2012, 112 minutes

Screened: Distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon, February 19th 2014

Nominated for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award

Thursday, February 27, 2014


Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning play about a family coming to terms with its past and present deserved a shot at the big screen - just not necessarily this one, an all-star version that tries to fit its savage look at the mistakes and pain inflicted for the sake of "family" into a more conventional prestige picture. Not surprisingly, the assembled star power looked like manna for distributor Harvey Weinstein's Oscar-directed campaigns, only this time it backfired on him, with August: Osage County locked out of all major-category nominations except for Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

     It's very much a tale of the emasculating power of Southern matriarchy, as the disappearance of poet and professor Beverly (Sam Shepard) brings the extended Weston clan to the claustrophobic, stifling Oklahoma family house to wait for news. Soon the resentment between dying matriarch Violet (Ms. Streep), a pill-addled harpy with a mean streak amplified by the drugs, and eldest daughter Barbara (Ms. Roberts), who was "daddy's girl" but finds herself too close to her mother for comfort, bubbles up and the jeu de massacre proper gets going over the course of a couple of days. To be sure, there are men around; but with the exception of the innately decent though occasionally off-color brother-in-law Charles (an excellent Chris Cooper), they're all either ineffectual or surplus to requirements. It's women that run this house, and as with nearly all female clans, affection and resentment walk hand in hand and love and hate are never far from each other.

     The key issue with August: Osage County is that Mr. Letts' brutally honest, often uncomfortable structure and dialogue, eschewing any pretense of a neatly predictable ending, needed an equally uncompromising handling - not the merely functional illustration provided by veteran TV show runner John Wells. And the starry cast, where even small roles are taken by name actors, elicits from the viewer expectations the film really can't fulfill. This isn't necessarily the actors' fault - who wouldn't want to be a part of this ensemble? - but Mr. Cooper has what is the single meaty male role, and it's really a women's picture, with Ms. Streep's fierce intelligence being for once upstaged by a strong Ms. Roberts and Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis as the two other Weston daughters. There's a strong sense that August: Osage County is never as hard-hitting a film as it wants to be, or even thinks it is, nor does it fulfill the potential inherent in its premise and casting, ending up settling for a reasonably formatted prestige picture that does little justice to both its origins and its cast.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham
Director: John Wells
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts, from his stage play August: Osage County
Cinematography: Adriano Goldman
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Designer: David Gropman
Costumes: Cindy Evans
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Producers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Jean Doumanian, Steve Traxler (The Weinstein Company, Jean Doumanian Productions and Smokehouse Pictures in association with Battle Mountain Films and Yucaipa Films)
USA, 2013, 121 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, February 19th 2014

Nominated for two 2013 Academy Awards (Best Actress - Meryl Streep; Best Supporting Actress - Julia Roberts)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Acclaimed Italian stage actor and director Pippo Delbono has been playing with form and content now for a while in his unclassifiable essay films, and does so again, with increasing personal relevance, in Sangue. It's an uncomfortable viewing experience, a disturbing meditation on the Italian combustible character mix of politics, faith and family, juxtaposing intellectual meditation and personal catharsis. What begins as an intriguing dialogue between Mr. Delbono - an avowedly Buddhist artist - and Giovanni Senzani, a former political activist only recently released from a lengthy terrorism jail sentence, eventually moves into a full-throttled dive into catharsis as the filmmaker's response to his mother's upcoming death from a terminal illness.

     The "blood" of the title is the same blood that unites Mr. Delbono to his family and Mr. Senzani to the bloody history of contemporary Italy, as well as the "blood of Christ" central to the Catholic faith which the director's mother so devoutly espouses. No wonder his trip to the former Communist bastion of Tirana, Albania, to look for the folk medicine known as "the poison of the blue scorpion" in the hope of giving her relief from pain or something to hold on to, gives an added irony to this melting-pot of religion, politics and history. And it's all held together by Mr. Delbono's occasional leaps of faith, and his insistent, borderline sick compulsion to keep the camera rolling all the time, even at his mother's deathbed, blurring further the fine line between exploitation and catharsis. Alternating between consumer cameras and smartphone footage, Sangue also evokes a sense of penance or release, a letting go of family issues or a coming to terms with one's past and personality.

     Whether this is a twisted, disturbing memento of self-exposure by a narcissist filmmaker or a brutally honest piece of essay filmmaking is really up to the viewer's tolerance for Mr. Delbono's approach. But there's no denying the bravura nature of this unusual, demanding film.

Director: Pippo Delbono
Screenwriter: Mr. Delbono, from an idea by Mr. Delbono and Giuseppe Senzani
Camera: Mr. Delbono, Fabrice Aragno  (colour)
Editor: Mr. Aragno
Producers: Mr. Delbono, Mr. Aragno, Frédéric Maire (Compagnia Pippo Delbono, Casa Azul Films, Swiss Cinemathèque, RSI and Vivo Film in collaboration with Rai Cinema)
Italy/Switzerland, 2013, 92 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2013 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 25th 2013

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


There's an irony at the heart of George Clooney's latest directorial assignment. The Monuments Men is a tale that purports to explain why we should care about art, culture and history in a society that seems to care exclusively about the short-term, and why we should take good care of it, but it does it in such a breezy, happy-go-lucky, artless throwaway manner that it kind of self-defeats. But what if that really wasn't its purpose? What if Mr. Clooney, working from Robert Edsel's true-life book about a small band of Allied art specialists drafted to help protect European treasures from the Nazi during WWII, never really wanted to make anything other than an old-fashioned war movie, a smart Boy's Own adventure for audiences tired of cynicism and looking for some wholesome good-vs.-evil entertainment?

     Nice job if you can get it both ways, but despite the attempt Mr. Clooney, also scripting, producing and acting, fails to get there. The Monuments Men becomes a sort of Ocean's Eleven wannabe set in WWII, as museum director Frank Stokes (Mr. Clooney) pulls together a half-dozen connoisseurs to travel war-torn Europe searching for art stolen by the Nazis in order to return it. The juxtaposition between the seriousness of the subject - underlined by the revelation of a treasure trove of stolen art in Munich just as the film was in post-production - and the light-heartedness of the caper movie format never really works; the result turns out to be strangely muted, musty and sleepy, lacking the enthusiasm and flair that the script's constant (but somewhat flat) attempts at "rat pack" banter aim for.

     The film eventually resolves itself in a series of handsome but loosely threaded vignettes that more often than not give its all-star cast very little to do except parade their star wattage; the obvious observation is that Mr. Clooney is no Steven Soderbergh, even though The Monuments Men pretty much seems to be the sort of film that director would do in a heartbeat. But, in fact, Mr. Clooney's best films as director (Good Night, and Good Luck. or The Ides of March) were disenchanted ensemble pieces on serious subjects and every time he has attempted something lighter (cue his period football comedy Leatherheads) the outcome is less impressive. Maybe he is just too serious a filmmaker to actually feel at ease in the sort of lightweight adventure his suave screen persona as an actor seems tailor-made for, since he fails to find the tone that would carry The Monuments Men from the instantly disposable, half-hearted ho-hum war adventure it is into a modern-day equivalent of Kelly's Heroes or The Dirty Dozen.

Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas, Cate Blanchett
Director: Mr. Clooney
Screenwriters: Mr. Clooney, Grant Heslov, from the book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, The Monuments Men
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael (colour, widescreen)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Jim Bissell
Costumes: Louise Frogley
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Visual effects: Angus Bickerton
Producers: Mr. Heslov, Mr. Clooney  (Fox 2000 Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Smokehouse Pictures, Obelisk Productions and Studio Babelsberg in association with TSG Entertainment)
USA/United Kingdom/Germany, 2014, 118 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2014 official selection out-of-competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast, Berlin, February 9th 2014

Monday, February 24, 2014


Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's in-your-face, gongoric style is not to everyone's taste - but its show-off nature is entirely in tune with the modern Italy that he speaks of. Nowhere has this been made more visible than in The Great Beauty's look at the vain, disposable facade of a "society of spectacle" that seems to perpetuate itself to satiety, without ever attaining the essence of what it is to be human.

     In many ways, The Great Beauty could be seen as a twin of Matteo Garrone's excellent Reality, which was also all about modern Italy as a morally bankrupt country - though admittedly a more cynical, less desperate twin, and one that seems to revel in what it denounces as much as it despises it. That Mr. Sorrentino's hero is a notable gossip columnist who has squandered away his talent as a novelist, and that The Great Beauty takes place during the frivolous, long nights of Rome, practically invite the comparisons to Federico Fellini's epoch-making La Dolce Vita. And how dare Mr. Sorrentino take on the master's surreal, grotesque visions!

     Well, yes, he did dare - if you've seen the bewildering This Must Be the Place you'll know by now this isn't one director that is afraid of ridicule - and pulls it off with mixed results. Sprawling, overlong, occasionally heavy-handed, often grotesque, The Great Beauty is certainly bursting with Mr. Sorrentino's trademark grandiose, sweeping pans, becoming more of an annoyance and a tic by the minute now, especially because they're not always native or relevant to the story he wishes to tell.

     The film moves between the "micro" of the small world of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) and his search for meaning as he hits 65 and wonders what has he spent his life doing, and the "macro" of a Rome where everybody asks what is there left to look for. It's almost as if Mr. Sorrentino is aware that he cannot make another Dolce Vita or even attempt to update it, just strive for a modern-day equivalent. And just as Mr. Fellini had Marcello Mastroianni as his alter ego, so does the director have the great Mr. Servillo, whose performance as Jep is oddly (but probably not entirely casually) reminiscent of Silvio Berlusconi, but also remarkably kind and sensitive - especially in the key scene of his brutally considerate takedown of friend Stefania (Galatea Ranzi), who pretends to be what she isn't and tries to convince herself her life was worth something.

     That humanity, lying underneath all the bravado set-ups and contemporary music signposting from a distance the seriousness of the subject, makes up for the many flaws that The Great Beauty has, in a peculiar struggle with the savage cynicism that is present throughout. But perhaps that struggle between humanity and cynicism is inherent to a film whose subject is the all-pervading vapidity of a society that lost its moorings, its setting a city of illusions and facades and its engine the unavoidable passage of time. This cannot be Fellini's La Dolce Vita, because la vita is no longer dolce; it's a film about people who still believe in la dolce vita despite everyone else knowing it's a lie. That includes, for better and worse, Mr. Sorrentino himself.

Cast: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Franco Graziosi, Giorgio Pasotti, Massimo Popolizio, Massimo de Francovich, Roberto Herlitzka, Isabella Ferrari
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenwriters: Mr. Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello, from a story by Mr. Sorrentino
Cinematography: Luca Bigazzi  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Lele Marchetelli
Designer: Stefania Cella
Costumes: Daniela Ciancio
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima (Indigo Film in co-production with Medusa Film, Babe Films, Pathé Production and France 2 Cinéma)
Italy/France, 2013, 141 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, February 3rd 2014

Winner of the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award

Friday, February 21, 2014


The insidiousness and omnipresence of technology in our daily lives lay at the heart of Spike Jonze's surrealist love story between a shy, solitary man and a computer operating system in a futuristic Los Angeles. But neither does the director make the most of the ingenious premise he concocted, nor does Her supply any insights we haven't had before about the human/technology interface, engaging with its tale intellectually rather than emotionally.

     In many ways, it's as if Her is a feature-length expansion of Mr. Jonze's 2010 extraordinary love-among-the-robots half-hour I'm Here, replacing that short's burnt-out, worn-out colour scheme and appeal to emotion with a rainbow-coloured, glossy, hipster high-tech sheen. But it also reveals both the flaws in the director's scripting and the limits of a visual and narrative inventiveness that seems to work best either in short bursts or when Mr. Jonze is directing somebody else's writing. That was already an issue in his adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, where the script undermined the required magic at every point. Here, scripting on his own, the director keeps piling on incidents without realising everything he wanted to say about looking for love in a world too absorbed in itself has pretty much been said in the first half, with everything else coming on as "more of the same".

     To be sure, there are many pleasures to be had in this quirky tale of a man who seems to feel more at ease speaking to his computer than engaging with those around him. Joaquín Phoenix's hyper-controlled performance, Amy Adams' next-door neighbour and Scarlett Johansson's voicing of "Samantha" (substituting Samantha Morton, whose original voiceover was discarded by Mr. Jonze) are all wonderfully spot-on performances, and there are truly remarkable, almost casual moments of filmmaking where the images say all there is to be said, underlining with gentle, sweet irony how it's human contact we need the most in a growingly digital universe but that is exactly what we seem to be shying away from. That's what makes Her such a well-attuned fable for our times, though it ends up being merely an overlong, well-packaged one that thinks it's much meaningful than it really is. Mr. Jonze remains a gifted filmmaker in search of a collaborator as gifted as him.

Cast: Joaquín Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Scarlett Johansson
Director and screenwriter: Spike Jonze
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema (colour, widescreen)
Music: Arcade Fire with additional music by Owen Pallett
Designer: K. K. Barrett
Costumes: Casey Storm
Editors: Eric Zumbrunnen, Jeff Buchanan
Producers: Megan Ellison, Mr. Jonze, Vincent Landay (Annapurna Pictures in association with China Film Co-Production Corporation and Gung-Ho Films)
USA/China, 2013, 126 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, January 22nd 2014

Winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay
Nominated for four other Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Art Direction; Best Original Music Score; Best Original Song - "The Moon Song")

Thursday, February 20, 2014


It's a moot point by now than any of the English grandes dames of theatre and television will be, by themselves, reason enough to watch any film, no matter how middling. And Philomena is, indeed, middling, despite the pedigree of director Stephen Frears with actresses - cue Helen Mirren in The Queen, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening in The Grifters, Michelle Pfeiffer in Cheri, or both Ms. Bening and Ms. Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons. Worse, it's Mr. Frears' third middling film in a row after the equally underachieving Tamara Drewe and the barely released Lay the Favourite, despite re-teaming with Judi Dench after Mrs. Henderson Presents. 

     Though developed by co-star Steve Coogan, who produced and co-scripted from the book by journalist Martin Sixsmith, it's Ms. Dench who steals the film and runs wondrously with it, playing Irish nurse Philomena Lee - who, after 50 years, decides to finally look for the baby boy she bore out of wedlock at one of the infamous "Magdalene laundries" and was sold for adoption. Initially appearing to be a mismatched-buddy comedy, with the snobbish and prissy Sixsmith (Mr. Coogan) reluctantly "stooping" down to the level of the "human interest story" to follow the simple (but hardly simple-minded) working class woman's search, Philomena moves into darker and less obvious territory, as the true identity of Philomena's son is revealed and the true extent of the Catholic Church's shifty role in the case comes to light.

     Partly a plea for tolerance, partly a ferocious condemnation of a corrupted system, the film is essentially a two-hander that skirts dangerously the anti-religious tract and the tear-jerking melodrama; Mr. Frears handles it with a heavier hand than usual (the tonal balance between drama and comedy is mostly off-key) and allows it to slip occasionally into the "play for today" problem-picture, British-quality television mode which he has been able to evade most of the time. While the true case at its heart is nicely modulated, there's a sense the script, by Mr. Coogan and Jeff Pope, is unable to give the tale a different angle, unsure which way will make more justice to the story at its heart (and ending up not doing much of any justice). But it's all thankfully lightened by Ms. Dench's luminous, perfectly judged performance, with Mr. Coogan in fine form in the type of role he excels at (without extending his range at all). By no means a throwaway or a bad film, Philomena is just a middling film with a few good recommendation points.

Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Barbara Jefford, Anne Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham
Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriters: Mr. Coogan, Jeff Pope, from the book by Martin Sixsmith, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan (colour)
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Designer: Alan Macdonald
Costumes: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
Producers: Gabrielle Tana, Mr. Coogan, Tracey Seaward (Pathé Production, BBC Films, The British Film Institute, Baby Cow Films and Magnolia Mae Films)
United Kingdom/France/USA, 2013, 98 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, January 24th 2014

Nominated for four 2013 Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Actress - Judi Dench; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Original Music Score)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Let's take the obvious comparison to its logical conclusion, shall we? If Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity was a woman's picture set in outer space and given an experimental sheen by its purely cinematic reliance on one actress's performance, J. C. Chandor's All Is Lost sees Mr. Cuarón's play and raises it (though, to be sure, both films were produced concurrently). It has even less dialogue than Gravity, and while Sandra Bullock could at least rely on George Clooney for part of the film, Robert Redford is entirely alone on screen for the whole length of All Is Lost. What makes it an even more radical experiment in filmmaking is its reliance on the physical, tangible medium of water, and we all know how water is the most trickier, complicated element to shoot in.

     Mr. Chandor's film is essentially a man vs. the elements piece, where a solitary yachtsman finds himself at the mercy of the sea when his boat is broadsided by a stray shipping container, miles away from sea lanes and with no access to radio. That Mr. Chandor wanted Mr. Redford is no accident; the film places the "golden boy" of the last "Golden Age" of Hollywood, the star that straddled the worlds of the old studio system and the liberal-idealist generation of the 1960s and 1970s, at the heart of a shipwreck while having him ask what was it all worth. If, indeed, it was worth anything. His first words in All Is Lost are "I'm sorry". And in Mr. Redford's craggier yet still recognisably handsome face, in his aged features, a lifetime of experiences and of commitments (or lack thereof) come through loud and clear. It's a performance all the more remarkable for its quietness, its refusal to grandstand or play to the awed crowds or coast on one's reputation.

     That alone explains the limitations and challenges Mr. Chandor took on for his sophomore picture; to be sure, a surprising choice since his debut, the Wall Street ensemble piece Margin Call, was a carefully plotted screenwriter's movie and All Is Lost relies almost exclusively on visuals and performance, with the writer/director's prosaic approach to the sea as a landscape that is as spectacular as outer space but demands much less attention. It is by no means a masterpiece; there are moments where the viewer realises just how much underwritten some of the plot points are, but it's really the sheer normality of the film that in many ways embodies its actual strength. A dramatically powerful tale does not require outlandish scenery or elaborate situations, let alone an invincible action hero. An actor and a director who know what they want is all it takes, and in All Is Lost you find them perfectly balanced. And if All Is Lost is less complete and more open-ended than Gravity, it's very much its equal in terms of filmmaking intelligence and taking a challenge head-on.

Cast: Robert Redford
Director and screenwriter: J. C. Chandor
Cinematography: Frank G. de Marco, Peter Zuccarini (colour, widescreen)
Music: Alex Ebert
Designer: John P. Goldsmith
Costumes: Van Broughton Ramsey
Editor: Pete Beaudreau
Visual effects: Robert Munroe
Producers: Neal Dodson, Anne Gerb, Justin Nappi, Teddy Schwarzman (Black Bear Pictures, Treehouse Pictures, Before The Door Pictures and Washington Square Films in association with Filmnation Entertainment and Sudden Storm Entertainment)
USA/Canada, 2013, 106 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, Lisbon, January 23rd 2014

Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Sound Editing

Monday, February 03, 2014


Here's the conundrum that the second half of Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac asks you to solve: how can a film that is so openly manipulative of its viewers - in keeping with the director's playfully provocative oeuvre - come across as a nakedly personal, heartfelt plea for understanding, compassion and love? There is no innocence possible, or even desirable, in Mr. von Trier's world; yet he is constantly goading and taunting the viewer into trying to recapture that innocence so he can best come up and gleefully, yet contritely, trample it.

     None of this is even vaguely surprising for those who've been following his career and, in fact, Nymphomaniac's second half only underscores the film's nature as a combination of aesthetic/artistic autobiography and "recap" of previous episodes. Its structure as a series of sketches told by a self-described "evil person" (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to a self-appointed "father confessor" (Stellan Skarsgård) suggests the director is repenting and yearning for some sort of forgiveness from his audience.

     Yet, once this second part of the erotic adventures/Bildungsroman of titular heroine Joe gains speed, it becomes very obvious how pointless and redundant the four-hour length of the project (in this truncated, two-episode form) is. After the first half had laid out nicely the premise and development, whatever happens in the second seems to merely be another set of episodes that bring nothing of relevance, with the law of diminishing returns hard at work; you end up feeling as if Mr. von Trier is hammering home a point that had been well and truly made before at shorter length. The few guest slots left over for this second half (Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr) are basically glorified cameos that add little or nothing to an enterprise that grows bizarrely more cynical and nihilist the further it advances - until the "grandfinale" gives away the director's nature as an agent provocateur, any sort of narrative credibility taking a backseat to his need to make a point, or, indeed, to make a splash. Admittedly, if the order of the episodes had been reversed or switched, whatever you saw first would still come to seem better; the issue here is not that one half is better, only that one would have been more than enough and two stretches the material to breaking point.

     Still, one thing remains tantalizing: Mr. von Trier is never as affecting a director as when he is cutting it close to his own bone, and the personal nature of Nymphomaniac is such that, even under the general malaise brought on by his manipulations, there is a sense of a director exposing himself as perhaps never before.

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia Labeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth
Director: Lars von Trier, with Anders Refn
Screenwriter: Mr. von Trier
Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro  (colour, widescreen)
Designer: Simone Grau Roney
Costumes: Manon Rasmussen
Editor: Molly Malene Stensgaard
Producer: Louise Vesth (Zentropa Entertainments 31 in co-production with Zentropa International Köln, Slot Machine Productions, Zentropa International France, Caviar Films, Zenbelgië, Zentropa International Sweden, ARTE France Cinéma, Film i Väst and Groupe Grand Accord / ARTE G. E. I. E.)
Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium/Sweden, 2013, 124 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 3, Lisbon, January 21st 2014

Nymphomaniac Official Trailer from Zentropa on Vimeo.