Tag Archives: Stellan Skarsgård

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: METROPIA (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Tarik Saleh

FEATURING: Voices of , , , ,

PLOT: The world’s oil supplies are drying up, and Europe is now connected by a network of underground railroads known as Metropia, where a young man named Roger begins to hear a voice in his head.

Still from Metropia (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The standard tale of dystopian grimness and corporate conspiracy is given a fresh twist via a esque art style, shampoo-based mind control, and rejected asylum seekers launched away in rocket chairs.

COMMNETS: I’m told that director Tarik Saleh’s most recent feature outing—The Nile Hilton Incident, set in revolutionary Egypt—was a stellar piece of neo-noir crime drama. I personally avoided it, since modern politics gives me a migraine, but it had enough impact to net Saleh a directing gig on the acclaimed “Westworld” series.

When Metropia came out, though, Saleh was still largely an unknown; and fittingly, the film—despite clearly being intended for an international audience—made little impact either inside or outside Scandinavia; after all, by 2009, neither dystopian tales, nor animated films aimed at adults quite carried the novelty they once did.

But in many ways, Metropia seems quite well-aware of this. Really, perhaps that’s one of the best things that can be said about this film; it never tries to be more than it is. It isn’t under the illusion that the tale it tells of resource depletion, corporate conspiracy, and a bleak, excessively urbanized future is especially new; as a result, it makes an effort to avoid jamming its finger into the viewer’s chest the way some such films might do. To be sure, the grimness of the world that mankind has created for himself is still very much evoked—a half-crazed man in the subway soapboxes about the days when seasons still existed, and Juliette Lewis’s character laments how every city looks identical nowadays—but for the most part, the film clearly assumes that, by now, you’re familiar with the sort of desolate and drained world that humanity is rapidly heading toward, and doesn’t feel the need to spell it out in excessive detail.

Instead, the plot concerns itself chiefly with two things. The first is an elaborate conspiracy, implemented by the owners of the metro, Trexx, to read and control the minds of the European public via a leading brand of dandruff shampoo. The second is a standard love triangle.

The conspiracy plotline might be lacking in certain aspects. It follows a tried and tested structure, and, at the film’s climax, is brought down a little too easily. Nonetheless, the film seems conscious of this flaw, opting to evoke this familiar tale of corporate conspiracy in an unpretentious manner that focuses on its impact upon a single isolated individual, while portraying it in a quietly tongue-in-cheek manner (to reiterate: the mind-control is accomplished by the use of dandruff shampoo).

Of course, there are points when the comedic undertone is overemphasized (most notably in a brief, almost cartoon-like sequence, largely unrelated to anything else in the film, where the protagonist watches a live game show where rejected asylum seekers are launched off a bridge from spring chairs). But even in those moments, the delivery is deadpan enough for the film to retain its general sense of grounded self-awareness.

The love triangle, meanwhile, doesn’t do anything new with the formula, and the film, seemingly aware of this as well, doesn’t provide it much in the way of either attention or screentime. The subplot does offer a decent means of giving the protagonist a stake in the world, and a reason to hurry home from his clandestine investigations.

But as many guess before even watching it, the film’s defining characteristic is its singular animation. Through an unusual blend of CGI and motion capture, the characters, with their outsized heads, uncanny faces, and strangely puppet-like gait, evoke a digitized form of Terry Gilliam’s cutout animation style, with the characters bringing to mind sombre and gloomy bobbleheads. It’s unique, to be sure, and not in a way that feels gimmicky. It suggests a strangely harmonious meeting between the comically exaggerated and the grimly realistic, which fits with the film’s tone of cynical social commentary undercut by tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.

Considered in terms of its individual parts, Metropia might be mistaken for nothing special. It’s a fairly standard conspiracy thriller, in a fairly standard dystopian setting, in an unusual animation style. But taken together, these aspects create a film that, while perhaps not ground-breaking, is refreshingly self-aware in its approach to a familiar tale, telling it in a way that delicately spices up this grounded and grim tale of a dark future with an overlay of surreal, deadpan humor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s more interesting for its ideas and atmosphere than its story, but Saleh’s weird imagery and alienated animation style—a strange marriage of photo collage, CGI sophistication and cut-out animation with figures that suggest proletariat kewpie dolls—creates a unique world.”–Sean Axmaker, seanax.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: NYMPHOMANIAC, VOLUME I & II (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:  , , , ,

PLOT: A sex addict tells the story of her troubled life to an older man as he tends wounds left from a violent assault.

Still from Nymphomaniac (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although horrific, there is nothing here that stretches too far beyond the extremes of real-life addiction. It’s shocking, even grotesque, but not all that strange.

COMMENTS: Despite his reputation for pushing boundaries and drawing attention, I often found myself wondering what all the fuss was over the movies made by Lars Von Trier. I felt that he too often focused on raw, sometimes unbearable footage—female genital mutilation just isn’t all that fun for me to watch on screen—to get the desired effect from audiences, and that his use of weighty concepts (the death penalty, Christ allegories) to balance shock with substance was contrived. It seemed cheap to me to play on the emotions of a person simply for the sake of effect or to make the movie more memorable. This particular perception of Von Trier as an artist changed for me after watching Nymphomaniac, and I began to become more engaged with his stylistic techniques, as well as become fascinated by his (and the casts and crews that he works with) sheer bravery. I suddenly became hooked on this man’s work and his unusual talent for getting his audience to connect with characters in his films. I paid closer attention to the psychological terrorism of Antichrist and got in touch with why Von Trier chooses to be so shamelessly relentless: for sheer effectiveness I believe. He respects us by refusing to censor the human experience in any way.

Nymphomaniac is Von Trier’s longest (considering parts I and II as the same movie), most polished, brutal, and memorable film to date. I would rank it among the all-time epically foul sex sagas. It really is a horror film that presents itself in the form of an intense relationship-based drama. The horrifying elements of the film stay true to form for a von Trier outing; they are deeply psychological. Instead of gasping at Joe’s (the protagonist, played by Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin) lack of self-control (which is depicted in fully pornographic sex scenes of varying intensity), the audience is rather pulled towards terror by witnessing the sheer destruction that comes forth from the actions committed by all of the film’s characters. It is a labyrinth of hurt. A noteworthy example would be when Joe inadvertently convinces a man to leave his wife (played by a nearly unrecognizable Uma Thurman) and kids to come live with her. What follows is a mental breakdown by the Mrs. in front of her young children, all while Joe stares indifferently at the whole scene, totally unaffected and in the darkness of the void of addiction. It’s disturbing to watch.

The entire movie unfolds as a single conversation held between an older, seemingly asexual man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard, in his best performance yet) and Joe. We then watch and listen to the story of Joe’s life as an active sexual addict, including the horrors of her decisions and the abuse that circles through and around her. Skarsgard’s Seligman gives the movie an academic, non-sexual grounding that counters the brutality on display. He is nearly a saint to her throughout the film, a kind of hope that exists in the murk of brutality. We watch him show compassion and understanding while he comforts her, never judging, frequently quite forthcoming and innocently curious. The dynamic development and conclusion of this central relationship is one of the most interesting (and surprising) parts of the film, serving as a kind of base from which Joe’s story can grow its ugly, gnarling branches.

The depraved behavior that we see these characters engage in is ghastly and cruel, but it’s all so beautifully shot and presented that the pornographic elements become more like a reflection of reality than a means of cheaply shocking viewers. It all remains fairly wacky and demented, with a gradual progression into complete despair that left this reviewer dumbfounded. It is perhaps too grounded in reality, too obsessed with raw humanity to be considered “weird,” but it in no way lacks edge. It’s filled to the brim with raw, brutal violence, actual porn, and consistently amoral characters. It is often mean-spirited, in a comic way. Von Trier is still a prankster, and he pulls the rug out from under us more than once here. In some ways, Nymphomaniac is like a four-hour long, beautifully disgusting joke. It’s a sexy void. I have only seen it once, and I don’t really plan on watching it again, but I’m absolutely positive I will never forget it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s very weird, given, but it’s also effective.”–Tom Long, The Detroit News (Vol. II, contemporaneous)

138. DOGVILLE (2003)

“To take ‘Dogville’ primarily as the vehicle for this [anti-American political] view, however, is to make it a much less interesting movie than it is… Mr. Von Trier offered, ‘I think the point to the film is that evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right.’ It is the pervasiveness of that evil — the thoroughness of the film’s pessimism — that may seem most alien of all to doggedly optimistic American sensibilities.”–A.O. Scott quoting Lars von Trier in his New York Times article on Dogville

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Paul Bettany, , , , , Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, , Siobhan Fallon,

PLOT: Tom Edison, who fancies himself an intellectual and a moralist and dreams of becoming a writer, is bored with life in the tiny, isolated mountain township of Dogville, until one day he comes across a beautiful, refined young woman who is fleeing gangsters for unknown reasons. Tom falls in love with her and convinces the town to take the woman in and hide her; they agree that the woman, Grace, will do chores for the townspeople to earn her keep and gain their trust. But the more the self-effacing Grace offers to the people of Dogville, the more they abuse her forgiving nature, until they have turned her into the town’s slave; then, the men who were searching her out arrive…

Still from Dogville (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dogville is the first movie in a proposed trilogy from von Trier entitled (ironically) “America: Land of Opportunity.” The second in the series, Manderlay (2005), was shot on a similar minimalist set, also narrated by John Hurt, and featured the character of Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard). Manderlay was not as well received and was a financial flop. The third film has not been announced. Von Trier refuses to fly and has never been to the United States.
  • Von Trier set up a reality-show style confessional booth next to the set where (sometimes disgruntled) actors could enter and speak to the camera. This footage was edited into the 52-minute documentary Dogville Confessions, which appears as an extra on some DVD releases of the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The shot of Nicole Kidman lying in the truck bed among the apples, seen through the transparent canvas, is probably the film’s most beautiful image. Dogville itself, however, is the film’s most memorable image: a single blank set, with house walls and gooseberry bushes indicated on the floor with chalk.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Think that maybe Dogville may not be such a weird movie? Imagine you are about to pop this DVD into your player when your friend with the most ultra-conservative movie tastes walks in the room and asks what you’re about to watch. You respond, “Nicole Kidman plays a saintly woman fleeing mobsters who’s taken in by a small American town and used as a sex slave. Oh, and it’s shot in a warehouse with the buildings painted on the floor.” If your friend doesn’t immediately leave the room muttering “sounds too weird for me” then congratulations! Your most normal friend is a complete and utter weirdo.


Misleading original American release trailer for Dogville

COMMENTS: What director has a lower opinion of humanity than Lars von Trier? An acid moral parable, Dogville is almost weirdly ultra-rational, in Continue reading 138. DOGVILLE (2003)