Where Melancholia was a musing on the meaning of life and Antichrist on the power(lessness) of women, this latest von Trier epic is about the meaning of love and sex. And lots of flesh… did I mention the flesh? Rather than push it all up front (ahem) as Greenaway did in his Prospero’s Books, this is spread out (again, ahem) all through the telling of the tale (yeah, I’ll just stop now, you get the idea).
Oh, and lots of sex… real sex. This isn’t for the prudish or easily offended, do be warned. Certainly it is all meant to titillate, but the impact and result of the acts set it among some kind of context and that context will alter your expectation and view. Titillation fades rapidly and reality takes hold.
The story is practically a Socratic Dialogue between Skarsgard and Gainsbourg, peppered with flashbacks framed as chapters in Gainsbourg’s larger story. Darkly funny, bizarre, clunky at times to be sure, but somehow fascinating. Gainsbourg is an interesting choice for the role. She is a talented actor but, in real life, she came out of a childhood that reflects interestingly on this story (check out Gainsbourg: Vie Heroique). Skarsgard makes a great counter-balance and audience for the story she unfolds.
As her younger self, Martin shows she’s a capable and fearless actor, tackling her first feature role without blinking. You’ll be seeing her again over the years. And LaBeouf (The Company You Keep) delivers a suitable sounding board for her life, almost a counterpart to Skarsgard in position, but for very different purposes.
On a technical note, the transfer of the film is, at times, one of the worst I’ve seen for a major film. Noise in the background literally swims around at times on the Vol II disc, and not as an intentional effect. And the editing was off more than once at important moments, causing the frame to jump where the matching was clearly impossible so they just gritted their teeth and moved on.
However, do watch the extras, particularly “The Sex” on the second disc. How von Trier and his cast accomplished what they did will change your perspective entirely of the film. It is nothing short of a watershed moment in cinema because it is utterly un-noticeable unless you are told.
As with many von Trier films, it isn’t so much whether you like it or not, but rather did it hold your attention and make you think. It isn’t that he doesn’t entertain, he does, but he doesn’t tackle easy stories and doesn’t shy away from what are often taboo subjects. This isn’t one of his more re-watchable films, but it definitely has something to say. I’m not sure it fully succeeded… the statements by Gainsbourg’s character about her sense of self and beliefs seem at odds with what we see. In many ways it under-cuts the full intent of the film; or perhaps that is the point. And the ending is either comic, tragic, inevitable, or ironic depending on your interpretation. Perhaps a little of all of those. This isn’t his best film, but it is certainly an ambitious one.