Monday, June 9, 2014

How does Nymphomaniac compare to other cinematic endurance tests?

Posted By on 06.09.14 at 04:15 PM

Scenes From a Marriage
  • Scenes From a Marriage
Among other things, Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (playing this week at the Siskel Center) is an extended tribute-cum-insult to Ingmar Bergman, with the meandering intellectual blather delivered by Stellan Skarsgard's character often coming off as a deadpan parody of the confessional monologues one finds in many Bergman chamber dramas. That the film runs four hours seems like part of the joke, a comment on the interminableness (for some viewers) of Bergman's soul-searching. Nymphomaniac has been split into two parts for commercial release, though I'm glad I watched it all in one sitting this past weekend. Like many von Trier films, Nymphomaniac aims to irritate viewers into examining their prejudices. ("I believe the cinema should be like a pebble in your shoe," said the director, playing an even more obnoxious version of himself, in his early feature Epidemic.) It felt almost necessary to sacrifice an entire Friday evening to it in order to appreciate it fully.

There's always something to be gained from an endurance test at the movies. If nothing else, the experience allows for the sort of intellectual concentration one rarely gets to have outside of school or religious ceremony. Yet not all endurance tests are created equal. Some endurance tests—like Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore and Claude Lanzmann's Shoah—never let you forget how long they are, purposely wearing you down as a means of illustrating the weight of history or their subjects' despair. Others—like Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls or Bela Tarr's Satantango—make you lose your sense of time, forcing you to experience the film as if exploring an alien dimension. In most cases you leave the theater feeling you've accomplished something—and you find yourself eager to take a long walk and digest the film as you would a rich meal.

It's commonplace for theaters to break up lengthy films into multiple programs, though sometimes they'll show all the parts back-to-back for viewers who want to see the whole thing in one go. You can feel the camaraderie among those viewers when the lights come up after a multipart session. At a few such screenings I've attended the handful of people still there at the end have entered into lengthy conversation, regardless of whether they knew each other before. Once, after watching all six episodes of Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage on a fittingly bleak and chilly autumn afternoon, about a dozen other viewers and I congregated in front of the theater as if by instinct, chain-smoking and describing to one another how the great Swedish filmmaker had put us through the wringer.

By contrast I walked out of Nymphomaniac into a perfect spring night (the air was neither too cool nor breezy, making it perfect weather in which to bike home), irked but still tickled by von Trier's sophomoric punchline. It felt like a comic redux of my experience of Marriage—leave it to von Trier to make an intricate epic about not taking life too seriously.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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