Cinematographer Manuel Claro calls “Nymphomaniac” the ultimate Lars von Trier movie (“Volume II” opens Friday), containing “a fuck you to film school energy that’s all over the place,” in which the director’s pessimism and optimism battle one another. However, after the in-your-face look of “Melancholia,” the opus about sex addiction starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard was much simpler to light, despite the greater length and traipsing 55 days through Germany and Belgium.
“Originally, his vision was to do something much more punky and crazy and we tried to do that but it started to feel forced. So it became a balance between an open experience but still wanting to tell a good story,” Claro suggests. “The approach was about addiction and I think Lars can relate to this because he suffers a lot from different anxieties. When your body puts you in a condition where it takes control of you, it’s very much an illness story, and it was important that the sex wasn’t sexy. It was supposed to be a little brutal.”
But what Claro didn’t realize until after he saw “Nymphomaniac” was how humorous it is. And never once did von Trier refer to it as the finale of his “Depression Trilogy” (which includes “Antichrist” and “Melancholia”). Take the moment when Gainsbourg describes the horror of being totally desensitized and imagines falling helplessly into water, followed by the analogous image of Skarsgard plunging into his books.
“There are all of these contrasts and it’s very playful with ideas in a visual way,” Claro continues. “And I think the way Lars did that with her in the water and him with the books is so lo-fi that it becomes funny. For me, it doesn’t feel long and heavy — it feels lighthearted and it moves forward in a good pace. I think the first chapter in the second movie, ‘The Eastern and the Western Church (The Silent Duck),’ is almost like a whole movie in itself. The whole Jamie Bell section is quite crazy and interesting.”
Claro shot digitally with the Arri Alexa Plus with a lot of zoom lenses yet applying a Tiffen 1/8 Pro-Mist (white) filter to remove the digital look. He longs for the organic quality of film but is adapting the best he can, given the cultural and business shift to digital.
“Digital is getting so hyper-real that you see too much like skin details,” he laments. “Everything is too perfect and it’s not really pleasing to look at. For me, I usually fight sharpness. One of the problems in the camera industry is that engineers are going for the higher numbers. We are at the point where it’s going in the wrong direction. You can always degrade it, you can always put a filter in front of it, but, as a DP, you really want a camera that gives you its own kind of poetic quality and then you can go from there instead of having to make everything afterwards in post-production. And I think mentally there’s a huge difference in the creative process when you’re right in front of the actors on the set and then afterwards when you’re sitting in a dark room with a technician manipulating the images.”
Indeed, it was all about accommodating the performances. Claro made a headline for each chapter and the first one is warm and soft, indicative of a young girl’s sense of adventure and optimism as her sexual journey begins. This is contrasted by the cold blue that starts off “Volume II.”
But the framing devise in Skarsgard’s apartment proved the most challenging. “Lars had a strong idea of the framing of the room and the alley. He wanted it to have a theatrical feel, unreal or staged initially. So he was very specific about the production design and how it should be defined as a kind of monk’s cell. It’s very simple and we lit it with some practical lights on the wall and a small light. I adjusted the lights for each shot and I tried to keep the atmosphere of this room intact.
“Originally, we had a lot of ideas of the cameras to move around much more and have their own life, but it was so dense and there was so much information that we went for the simplest approach. You want to focus on them and the amount of material that they had to go through was incredible and we shot the whole room in five days, and I think the two movies together is like an hour-and-a-half of screen time just in that room. It was like shooting a play within a movie. You wanted to give the actors the best conditions to work with. It was probably the hardest to stage and light because it was so heavy. It’s like the two sides to Lars. He comes out with whatever he has on his mind…
“I’m very proud of this movie, not for my own work, but somehow the dramaturgy is more like literature. What Lars calls digression. Within cinema it’s a rare thing to see today.”
“Nymphomaniac” might be considered von Trier’s “Eyes Wide Shut” in analyzing sex without passion and passion without sex (he too uses Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Waltz 2 From Jazz Suite”). Only time will tell if it resonates anything like the late Kubrick’s final masterpiece.