Sundance 2014: Lars von Trier's top-secret screening of 'Nymphomaniac'...and the Aussie chiller 'The Babadook'

I arrived at Sundance early last night, a step ahead of an East Coast blizzard, to take the critic’s baton from my colleague Owen Gleiberman for the second half of the festival. The first words I heard when I arrived in Park City, Utah, were that there would be a top-secret screening Tuesday night of an eagerly anticipated film from a prominent director months before its scheduled release. The guessing games whipped into a full-on tizzy immediately, with the early odds-on favorite that it would be either Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel or Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. But when a sign outside the theater warned that “No one under 18 would be admitted”, it was clear it would be neither. This was going to be something naughty.

We were about to be treated to Lars von Trier’s arthouse sex-addict provocation, Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1.

About halfway through, I would have given anything for it to have been either of the other two.

It’s a tricky proposition trying to fully grapple with the first half of a two-part movie — I couldn’t completely appreciate the full scope of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill until I saw Vol. 2. So here¬†are just some quick impressions.

Von Trier has made a movie that is at the same time scandalous and tame, outrageous and obvious, graphic and untitillating, serious as a heart attack and weirdly funny. And I wasn’t buying what he was peddling for a second.

The film opens with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe (von Trier’s Melancholia) laying bloodied, beat up, and bruised in a rainy alley, where she’s found by Stellan Skarsgard — an intellectual obsessed with fly-fishing lures, the polyphony of Bach, and Fibonacci number sequences. He takes Joe back to his apartment, where she drinks tea, gets nursed back to health, and regales him with how she came to this sorry state. What follows is a candid history of her early sexual curiosity, years of teenage sexual rebellion and dizzying profligacy, and her adult obsession with coldly humping as many partners in as humiliating and dehumanizing ways as possible. I know, sounds pretty risque, right? It’s not. It’s a pretentious howler.

Joe seems to want to get a reaction out of Skarsgard (her confessor and shrink), but she gets a different response than the one she expects. She tells him, “I’m just a bad human being”. But he refuses to pass judgment on her. He’s an eager audience –not a creepy one — and he’s easily the best thing in the film. Gainsbourg flashes back on her graphic conquests (acted out by younger actress Stacy Martin) in the sing-songy, proper British accent of a young girl, which is supposed to clash with the dirty acts she’s describing. But both she — and the movie — always seem like they’re trying too hard to be taboo and outrageous when it comes to her self-liberation.

Shia LaBeouf turns up as one of Gainsbourg’s earliest and most indelible lovers — and while he’s interesting in the film, it’s a good thing that the actor just retired from Twitter because there’s going to be a lot of chatter about his, um, “revealing” performance in which he has hardcore penetration scenes (the image of Lil’ Shia in full salute isn’t left to the imagination). Uma Thurman waltzes in for one section of the movie as a cuckolded wife whose husband Joe is sleeping with — and she seems to be in a completely different movie where the volume is hysterically cranked to 11. And Christian Slater rounds things out as Joe’s father, who she watches sink into dementia and somehow finds arousing. Are you gasping and clutching your pearls yet?

Von Trier’s breathless will to shock is exhausting. Anal sex, bodily fluids, clinical close-ups of genitalia. None of this stuff is as transgressive as von Trier seems to think it is. It’s just tedious. I’m in no rush to see Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2.

To cleanse the icky taste from my palate, I decided what I needed was a good midnight horror movie. Which is exactly what I got with the Aussie chiller, The Babadook. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, the film probably leans on a few too many bogeyman-flick ¬†cliches, but Kent’s film taps into something more primal. Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a single mother whose husband died in a car accident seven years earlier on their way to the hospital to give birth. Now it’s just her and her rambunctious young son Sam (Noah Wiseman) alone in a big creepy house. Sam is adorable with big brown saucer eyes, but he’s also a handful. Like all kids his age, Sam is afraid of ghosts and monsters who live in his closet and under his bed. Putting him to bed every night is a chore — Amelia has to search his room, make sure the coast is clear, and read him endless stories because he’s too scared to fall asleep (and usually ends up in her bed anyhow).

Then, one night, a new bedtime book shows up called “Mister Babadook” — a grisly, rhyming pop-up book with a terrifying bogeyman character named after the title. With his sinister couplets, black trench coat and top hat, and razor-like Nosferatu talons, he’s like a hybrid of Edward Gorey and H.P. Lovecraft. This scars Sam, sending him into crying fits and jags of screaming terror. It starts to affect the sleepless Amelia too — her sanity begins to unravel and she starts hearing bumps in the night and has visions of the Babadook while in bed.

The Babadook has more on its mind, though, than simple James Wan-style shocks. As Amelia starts to go mad and she loses control over her haunted son, the film takes on parallels to both Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. The tense anxiety of a parent who’s unable to control their child — and is powerless to help them conquer their demons — is powerful and poignant.

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