2014 columns, Film

Weirdos on screen: Noah and Nymphomaniac

by Rochelle Siemienowicz , April 3, 2014Leave a comment



There are some filmmakers you’ll follow into the dark, no matter how bad the buzz is about their latest work. For me, naughty boy Lars von Trier (The Idiots, Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Antichrist, Melancholia) and strange kid Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) are two filmmakers who can be loved or detested, but never ignored. Their films are often awkward and bizarre, I’m usually willing to be prodded and provoked by their weirdness and audacity.

Right now in cinemas you can see the workings of von Trier’s sick and twisted sense of humour in the four-hour sex epic Nymphomaniac (volumes 1 & 2 are showing together in Australia, with a brief interval to calm yourself down); and marvel at the nature of obsession, both in front of the camera and behind it, in Aronofsky’s fantastical and feverish reimagining of the biblical flood story, Noah – a story that has apparently haunted the now 45-year-old atheist director since he was a teenager.

Neither film is fully successful. If I had a gun to my head to give star ratings – such blunt critical instruments and I hate using them – both films would get a solid but unremarkable three-and-a-half-stars. They’re both wildly uneven in tone and style, getting lost in the wilderness of their own nonsense after brilliant beginnings. But there are scenes within each film that must be seen to be believed; images and sequences that will stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema – whether you want them to or not.

The most difficult scenes involve Charlotte Gainsbourg as the titular Nymphomaniac, getting bashed, whipped, raped, buggered and humiliated – most of the time because she’s directly asking for it. The R-rated film tells the story of Joe (played in her younger years by Stacy Martin, and in her middle age by Gainsbourg), a woman whose life is completely consumed by her desire for sex in all its variety. Bleeding and battered, the middle-aged Joe is rescued from a dark alleyway by a kindly monk-like scholar (Stellan Skarsgård). As he plies her with cups of tea, she tells her story, Scheherazade-like, as a series of sexual episodes, starting from ‘I discovered my cunt at the age of two’, through to her perfunctory loss of virginity (three thrusts in the vagina, five in the anus), and on and on into an increasingly dark and sticky world.

Whether Nymphomaniac is pornography or not is a whole other debate. (It’s certainly explicit, though this version excludes the non-simulated penetration apparently available in the director’s cut.) But few would argue that the most interesting aspects of the film have to do with von Trier’s playful humour, like the framing of Joe’s face by two semi-erect black penises, jousting for dominance as two African men argue about which hole each of them will take. The absurd (sometimes frankly adolescent and silly) digressions and increasingly complex interplay between Joe and her patient listener allow for an exploration of guilt, compulsion and the nature of evil, in ways we’ve never seen before.

Evil too is a central theme in Noah, where Russell Crowe gives great beard as the last good man alive, tasked by The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) to build an ark to save his family and the animals from the great deluge that will be sent to wipe out the rest of wicked mankind, who have destroyed the earth through their rampant greed (cue environmentalist megaphone). Using the full arsenal of CGI effects, time-lapse photography and a powerful instrumental score composed by Clint Mansell and performed by the Kronos Quartet, Aronofsky fuses creationism and evolutionary theory to create a potently beautiful and convincing pre-diluvian universe. It’s the Bible meets Game of Thrones meets Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and it almost works for a while.

It all goes a bit weird and Dead Calm when they’re all on the boat and Noah decides that The Creator doesn’t mean for the human race to survive after all. We see here Aronofsky’s continuing romance with characters who crack themselves open in disturbing ways (most literally in The Wrestler and Black Swan) because they are driven by madness, addiction and obsession. The fact that the religious stories of Noah in the Bible and the Koran suggest none of this crazy characterisation (and contain no mention at all of absurd Transformer-like rock-monsters that appear to have wandered in from a Michael Bay film) are perhaps some of the reasons why the film has been banned in Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and most recently Indonesia. This Noah, embodied by Crowe, is a pure Aronofsky monster.

The most interesting pieces of art are often the messy, dirty ones; the canvases we’re not sure whether to ridicule for their lunacy or embrace for their sheer, inspired originality. I, for one, will be watching to see what these two directors do next. But you’ll never get me to revisit von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark or Aronofsky’s The Fountain. For those I’d have to be straight-jacketed and tasered.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne-based film journalist, reviewer and editor. 

ACO logo


Chris Gordon

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Chris Gordon defends Last Day in the Dynamite Factory

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defence of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Readings Events Manager Chris Gordon spoke in praise of Annah Faulkner’s novel Last Day in the Dynamite Factory. Read more »


Michaela McGuire

The Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown: Michaela McGuire defends Hot Little Hands

At our recent Readings Prize Shortlist Showdown event, six writers gave a speech in defense of the book they believed most deserves to win the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Writer and Emerging Writers’ Festival Director Michaela McGuire spoke in praise of Abigail Ulman’s short story collection, Hot Little Hands. Read more »


Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their September picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Playing It Straight: On queer actors, queer characters, and ‘bravery’

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an unwelcome trend reappearing; one I had hoped was long dead and buried, along with frosted tips. It is the discussion around whether queer actors can play heterosexual characters. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Girl Gang: The value of female friendship

For two years I was the only girl in my class, along with four boys. Perhaps this would have been some kind of fantastic Lynx-filled utopia for a boy-crazy pre-teen girl, but for someone who was just beginning to figure out that she didn’t like boys in the same way other girls seemed to, it wasn’t what you could call ideal. Read more »


Rebecca Shaw

Written On the Body: Fat women and public shaming

The policing and subsequent shaming of women’s bodies is not unique to famous women. It happens to all women. Feeling entitled to denigrate fat bodies, and fat women’s bodies in particular, is one of the last bastions of socially acceptable discrimination. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Throne Of Blood: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

For more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both. Read more »


Anwen Crawford

Memorable Chills: Edgerton’s Gift

The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half. Read more »


Joanna Di Mattia

Escaping The Wolfpack: Inside and outside the screen

The Wolfpack introduces us to the six Angulo brothers, who were kept virtual prisoners for 14 years in their Lower East Side apartment. More than a captivity narrative, this is a film about the influence of cameras and screens, and the transfixing, liberating power of cinema. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


Jane Hone

How the Golden Age of Television Brought Us Back Together

I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion ­– millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed. Read more »

glitch abc tv

Stephanie Van Schilt

A Glitch in the System: The ABC’s undead gamble

In one gasping breath, Glitch shows that the ABC is stumbling towards something beloved by TV audiences the world over, but that regularly eludes the Australian and film and TV industry: genre. And not just any genre, but the ‘return-from-the-dead’ zombie-style genre. Read more »


Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Straight White Men - Public Theatre - Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Jane Howard

Unbearable Whiteness: Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men

Though I am delighted to see Young Jean Lee gain traction in Australia, a work by playwright who is a woman of colour should not be such a rare occurrence; nor should this only come in the form of a play that blends effortlessly into the fabric of the work that is programmed around it. Read more »


Jane Howard

Putting Words In People’s Mouths: Performing the unseen, speaking the unknown

‘Do you ever get the feeling someone is putting words in your mouth?’ A performer asks an audience member in the front row. ‘Say yes.’
‘Yes,’ comes the reply.
This theme ran through multiple shows at Edinburgh Fringe this year, where occasionally audience members, but more often performers, were asked to perform scripts sight unseen. Read more »


Jane Howard

The Impenetrable City: Getting lost at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

I just saw a one-on-one performance piece that ended in my bursting into tears and the artist sitting with me and holding my hands in hers for maybe ten, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. We had a shared piece of history, and her work was delicate and took me by surprise, and I have a cold, and I am homesick, and I don’t know why I’m in Edinburgh, and I’ve cried a lot, and now I’m in a gallery because I couldn’t face another show. Read more »