Is Nymphomaniac Stunt Filmmaking or A Work of Art?
John C. Lyons discusses the difference between pornography and artful filmmaking, Ben Speggen's namedropping Matthew McConaughey, and running around the woods with camo facepaint in light of the upcoming screening of Lars von Trier's newest film.
You may have seen the posters – the ones of actors you're likely to recognize. At the top, there's a brief explanation – Shia LaBeouf is Jerome or Christian Slater is Joe's Father, for example.
At the bottom, it states simply: Nymphomaniac: Coming soon.
And those actors? They're tense, muscles rippling. And they're all are nude, making, well, faces one may easily associate with a film titled Nymphomaniac.
Lar Von Trier's latest film, the tale of a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac named Joe, has critics abuzz, debating: Is this art, or is this stunt filmmaking – or possible something worse: an artful indie porno flick.
Controversial? Yes. Thought-provoking art or high-brow porn? I can't say; I haven't seen it yet.
But Film Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania Executive Director John C. Lyons has. And as curator of the FILM at the Erie Art Museum, he's screening both volumes so that Erie cinephiles can experience the film and engage in the age-old debate of what separates art from smut.
Ben Speggen: Let's start with an easy question: What's the difference – to you, as both a filmmaker and a curator – between pornography and artful filmmaking?
John C. Lyons: [Laughs] Well, let's get right to it there! The approach to sex is different. In pornography, the act of sex is the focus and the setup is just the window dressing. Housewife, poolboy, sex wherever. Mix up the variables and action! Character development isn't a priority. The purpose of the material is to get the viewer off.
In Nymphomaniac, the protagonist's experiences are unveiled through conversations between her and an inexperienced sexually but well-educated man, and it is handled intellectually. To me, there is nothing erotic about the sex scenes. They are most certainly graphic, but because of their context, the purpose is not to arouse. I've seen hotter scenes in PG-13 movies.
BS: I'm not surprised that a Lars von Trier film made your cut for this season, but were you drawn more to the film because of his acclaimed catalogue or because of the daring subject matter of Nymphomanic?
JCL: My goal with [FILM at the Erie Art Museum] has been to showcase an eclectic program of quality films and be a place for cinephiles and casual viewers alike to gather, enjoy, and discuss. It is merely a coincidence that another film with graphic sex and a female lead came out this year with such buzz. I don't set out to provoke or be controversial in my programming, but I have gotten to a place – thanks to the support of our returning audiences and sponsors – where I don't feel limited. If I feel a film or filmmaker is worthy of note and discussion, it's fair game at this point.
Lars von Trier is one of the pioneers of contemporary cinema. We've shown three films by his Danish counterparts (Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration and The Hunt and Susanne Bier's After The Wedding) who also broke out in the Dogme 95 movement, and it was an opportune time because of how the subject matter fit into the spring program to highlight him. If you're a programmer and you want to introduce your audiences to filmmakers that stand out, you can't ignore Denmark or von Trier. Love him or hate him.
BS: Speaking of films with graphic sex and female leads, last season, you showed Blue is the Warmest Colour – a film, let's say for those who aren't familiar, that isn't for the more prudish viewer who's easily offended by a ten-minute-long sex scene between two young women exploring their sexuality. Showing daring films – Upstream Color, The Sound of My Voice, Blue Valentine – isn't something new to you as a curator. But sex, well, that's different for American viewers, right? I mean, people being ripped in half by zombies and guts spilling all about doesn't bother us a bit – but sex on screen… It's different to us, don't you think? Are you trying to make any sort of statement showing films like Colour and Nymphomaniac?
JCL: I wasn't into horror as a kid, but I grew up on action films. Some of my favorite movies were very violent: Rambo, Rocky, Predator, Lethal Weapon, etc. I ran around the woods with camo face paint and this Rambo M-60 motorized toy gun and killed imaginary Russians all day long. But if I saw something sexual or some nudity…oh man! We're like pre-programmed in America that blood and violence is the norm in our entertainment, but the fear we have to the subject of sex. We're the Wild West – as my wife Dorota would say – as far as our rather terrifying love of guns but complete prudes in the act of sex. Quite disturbing. I mean, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, was banned in Idaho. That is completely f---ed up. This is a beautifully shot, well-acted, coming-of-age story about a ten-year relationship and its banned because its two women being intimate with one another. I've programmed violent films for FILM at the Erie Art Museum too (Oldboy and Kill List come to mind). I don't have an agenda other than to show films I feel are important. I think to have an outlet to show good films of all shapes and sizes is a success for us in this region.
BS: What – if anything – led to the thought that: "Okay, Erie is ready for such films…" Is your standard crowd ready?
I had to build that trust, and we had to find our audience. We're always looking for people who have interests besides the mainstream fare being offered in our single chain theater. Tinseltown is a fantastic place and it serves its purpose, but we miss so much great cinema every week in Erie. There's just no way to cover the spectrum in a single venue. So it's been a process the past two years to build that name and brand.
With FILM at the Erie Art Museum, I really felt like I, as the curator, had to introduce myself and my tastes and grow us from there. The first film I showed, in June 2012, was a rough cut of my own film, There Are No Goodbyes and some of my all-time favorites (2001, Amelie, Baraka). Then I set out to really start filling the void in northwestern Pennsylvania. The feedback we get every night is amazing and the post-screening discussion aspect and guest Q&As have been a major treat. Our audiences are comfortable with Erika [Dauber-Berlin, president of the Film Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania] and I and our wonderful support staff and with one another. Even if someone doesn't love a film I've chosen, they can still appreciate why I've selected it. My crowd is definitely ready for Nymphomaniac. It will take some time to introduce Erie as a whole to the great films they are missing out on, but it's a challenge the Film Society and our partner organizations are up for.
BS: How much explaining do you feel is necessary to do before the screening? Any "Warning: Umm, so everyone, this film features a graphic sex scene…"
JCL: I mean, to be honest, with the marketing materials and the title of the film, that's really the only reason I've felt I've needed to explain something above and beyond what I would normally. Lars von Trier is a filmmaker who welcomes controversy. He loves to push buttons. He pushes my buttons every damn movie! That's why he's such an exciting filmmaker. He makes difficult films.
The Nymphomaniac title and posters are very provocative. To me, they sort of misrepresent the film. But I understand the marketing dilemma. When you make a film like this, with all the talent involved – Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia LaBeouf – you have to earn back some money and you have limited venues that will show the film as it is Unrated. So they went over-the-top on the marketing. I get it. But to me, I never felt like I needed to say in a serious manner "There's going to be unsimluated sex here, so be warned." I really just felt I needed to say, "Okay, so we've got your attention, now let's all sit back, watch, and discuss all the transgressive themes that are going on here."
BS: Colour features full-frontal female nudity and – albeit briefly – full-frontal male nudity, but penetration is obscured from the viewer. Nymphomaniac, on the other hand, shows penetration. Do you feel like viewers compartmentalize different sex acts when seeing them on screen – a, "Well, X is fine, but Y… well, as long as I don't see Z… and if I do… that's a bit much…" – a "this is okay, but this other thing isn't…"?
JCL: Well, this all depends on the individual viewer. And I can't pretend that I know how everyone is going to react. I'm going to react different than you and everyone else in our screening. Personally, I thought the prolonged, much-talked-about, sex scene in Blue Is The Warmest Colour was both fascinating – from my limited male perspective – and overdrawn. And it was all simulated using prosthetics and movie magic. Some viewers giggled during some of it. And one of our senior regulars came up to me after it and said, "It was a wonderful, beautiful film, I loved it – I just never saw something with raw sex in it before." Our audiences are amazing and so open. You just never know.
Nymphomaniac is a much different beast, however. It's not beautiful. The sex is real, and really in the way they pulled that off is quite an accomplishment in itself, but I won't mention more on that until the post-film discussion, as I don't want people to be distracted from the scenes. Volume I is oftentimes very funny. Really darkly funny. Volume II goes much darker after something occurs at the end of Volume I. There are scenes in Volume II that made me uncomfortable, but being familiar with the filmmaker, I anticipate he's going to hit a nerve. There is a definite difference in Blue and Nympho in the approach to filming the sex, but both approaches are successes in feeling totally raw and real to the viewer, in my opinion. But love versus lust make the act quite different between the two films.
BS: Esquire's Stephen Marche wrote an article titled "The Sex Scene is Dead: And Nymphomaniac hasn't done anything to revive it," in which he suggests that given what the Internet has done for the pornography industry, filmmakers are struggling to re-imagine the sex scene in films now and that filmmakers like von Trier and Kechiche are trying – but failing – to cinematically capture any art to that again. Are they failing? Is Marche missing the point of these films?
JCL: I thought that article was awful. To me, it was a very shallow, exterior-only approach to the material. He sounded like someone going into these films wanting to be tantalized. He wanted to see Uma Thurman have hot lesbian sex with Charlotte Gainsbourg or something that fit his celeb fantasy and he was disappointed when he didn't get that. If the writer has grown so numb to seeing sex in films, he should maybe take some time away from the computer and meet some actual women and/or men. You're not going to get that from Lars von Trier or Abdellatif Kechiche. These films have more layers than that. There are real emotions at play.
BS: Let's admit it – the sex-hungry manwhore trope isn't new to film. After all, Academy Award-winning Matthew McConaughey started in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – isn't there a scene where all of the condoms he's used throughout his sexcapades rain down on him in an moment of epiphany? Is it too much that I'm admitting to having seen that film? But more seriously, do you think these films – the Blues and Nymphomaniacs of the world – are receiving as much attention as they are because they feature female leads?
JCL: [Laughs] I don't know what to say… you've seen Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. I have not. Wow, man. Impressive. [Laughs again] You've named McConaughey.
BS: Well, I just wanted to be able to say "Academy Award-winning Matthew McConaughey" – I'm still getting used to the way that sounds.
JCL: [Laughs] Look at Jude Law. Dom Hemingway is out this month – in places other than NWPA. See also Alfie. Hell, see also Spielberg's A.I.! Male actors make careers out of playing manwhores. Name actresses who have done the same. (Pauses) I'm drawing a blank. Sure, women will play a prostitute. You'll always find a career highlight in every top actress's career where it's okay for them to be a down-on-their-luck prostitute: Anna Karina, Julia Roberts, Mira Sorvino, Jodie Foster, Nicole Kidman, Elisabeth Shue, Kim Bassinger, Charlize Theron, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor. But how often have you seen a woman in a positive light enjoying their sexcapades?
Nymphomaniac may cover new ground for English-speaking audiences, but its territory that's been covered oversees for some time now – though I'm sure the number of films pale in comparison to male roles. We've got some issues with women and sex. That goes back pretty far in civilization. It makes me feel like quite a prude being an American. So in that way, in very proud that we're able to show an unfiltered reality in our series.
BS: It's no secret that Nymphomaniac has created a wide gap begin critics, with some suggesting it's a one-track film that tries to get away with as much as it can while still seeming intellectual; others suggest it's a true work of art and its cinematic accomplishments are being overshadowed by sex. Is this just stunt filmmaking or something we'll look back on in ten years and marvel at our inability at the time to take it serious?
JCL: Time will tell. Because of the personality of the filmmaker, people react quickly without even seeing a moment of footage. He's just that type of filmmaker. I think it's stunt casting for sure. But everyone brings their A-game, so it isn't like he just wanted names. He wanted talent and fearless actors. I know people pick on Shia LaBeouf, but his role here is well-suited. Lars is a smart filmmaker, he knows what he's doing. As with each of his films, there are scenes baked to my brain in Nymphomaniac that I will never forget.
Lars von Trier puts himself out there in all of these characters. These are very personal, and I'd imagine often painful, stories he's telling. I mean, Nymphomaniac is the third film in what he has called his "Depression Trilogy" (Antichrist and Melancholia are the others) so I think you really need to go into these films with an open mind. When the lights go up, you're going to have a strong reaction one way or another, and that's what von Trier loves.
FILM at the Erie Art Museum presents Nymphomaniac Vol. I Wednesday, April 16 and Vol. II Wednesday, April 23. For more information, visit: filmsocietynwpa.org.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @ERBenSpeggen.