Ever since Y tu mamá también and Last Tango in Paris I’ve been on an unspoken quest to find incredibly sexy films that are also great works of cinema. The search has proven quite frustrating and I’ve begun to realize that there may be nothing harder than finding legitimate, high quality works of cinematic art that revolve around sexual themes. The problem seems to be that sex can prove to be incredibly hard to integrate into an otherwise coherent, overarching story. One thing that distinctively marks pornography is that its premises seem entirely built around the ability to get to the explicit sex, and once there they spend an exorbitant amount of time on it which ceases to advance anything within the story. So the million dollar question is: how do you use sex to comment on characters and advance the story while maintaining the sexiness? One can look at the issue as a scale: on the one end we have pornography and on the other we have films which are only marginally sexy, but are otherwise just like other films. In the middle we have the compromise of erotica and as films inch closer and closer to it, it becomes increasingly difficult to make that balance between sex and art appear equally distributed and perfectly integrated. It’s as if one aspect repels the other in their fight for dominance.
It was with rather high expectations—or perhaps I should say high reservations and careful optimism—that I approached Christian Molina’s Diary of a Nymphomaniac, aka Insatiable. The film has received little critical attention, but a comparison to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour by an Amazon UK reviewer piqued my interest enough to pick it up for the low, low price of £2.99 (about $4.50). Even the film’s setting in Spain seems ripe for sexually provocative storytelling since the country is also home to the critically acclaimed, though sexually controversial, filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar (and, to a lesser extent, others like Julio Médem). The story concerns a woman named Valére (Belén Fabra) who, after losing her virginity at 15, finds that she has an insatiable appetite for sex and the “cosmic” release of orgasms. She even diagnoses herself as a nymphomaniac, but her grandmother, Marie (Geraldine Chaplin), reassures her and tells her to live her own life. Valére works in advertising with her best friend Sonia (Llum Barrera) until she loses her job and searches for another where she meets Jaime (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and falls in love for the first time.
In my casual stroll through the sexploitation genre, I recently came upon a vintage (because “vintage” sounds so much more classier than “old”) Swedish erotica film entitled Anita: Swedish Nymphet, starring a young Christina Lindberg (a goddess of cult films). While the film was hardly a masterpiece, I was rather struck by how naturally the concept of nymphomania lent itself to erotica. Perhaps it should be obvious, but it seems like it would be a premise that would much easier slip into pornography and sleaze, rather than psychologically penetrating erotica. Yet Anita was, in its own way, classier and more psychologically complex than the vast majority of sexploitation films I’d seen, with a sympathetic lead character and a rather compelling use of the nymphomaniac concept which explored the difference between fleeting sexual satisfaction and the more lasting type that only comes with love. In Diary, I was basically hoping for a film that added even more class and cinematic artistry, and while the film does deliver that, it’s not without its flaws.
It certainly doesn’t take long to get to the sex, and, indeed, very early on we’re introduced to a montage that takes us through Valére’s life from her first sexual encounter with her boyfriend up until her present life with liaisons like Hassan (Pedro Gutiérrez). It does this with a perpetually moving camera which sweeps through locations—kitchens, cars, bathrooms, bedrooms, etc.—and finds Valére making love in a variety of ways and positions in each. This was certainly a promising opening in its ability to strike that balance between sex that’s sexy, but tasteful, relevant to the character and story, and at the same time is finding a way to express that cinematically. It even introduces an element of mysticism when Valére states: “l’ve been asked what I feel when I make love. It’s like a mix of energy with the other person that makes me fly and merge with the cosmos. The energy of my orgasm is a small part of me that goes and ends up mixing with the universe, a sidereal trip that takes me to infinity.” And with Hassan telling Valére how Allah created from the south wind an Arabian horse that was impossible to tame, and that Valére was that tamable horse.
But these “poetic” elements also mark some of the film’s biggest flaws in its heavy-handed crudeness. Much of the film, for all its sex, plays out like a typical, manipulative melodrama; imagine Douglas Sirk without the visual stylization and with the repressed social roles reversed. Another element that plagues the film is its unrealistic depictions of misogynistic men. Both Jaime and Valére’s later love interest, Giovanni, is introduced in one light, and then suddenly changes personalities to an abusive, uncaring Neanderthal. The destruction of Valére’s relationship with them also marks the film’s patterned descent into maudlinism, the same way the death of Valére’s grandmother does in the first act. In fact, the film is marked by an overtly formulaic script, which too neatly follows the three-act structure with a pattern of introduction, elation, conflict, descent and recovery. The film’s pacing problems are exacerbated by a profusion of abbreviated, deficient scenes which interrupt the flow of the narrative. This typically doesn’t detract from the film as long as they’re well paced and unified, but Diary feels like three loosely related acts attached together with duct-tape and glue.
I’ve often said that sentimentalism, flawed writing and just about any negative can be overcome if a film boasts a well-crafted protagonist with a compelling enough lead performance, and Diary nearly (though not quite) escapes my harsh criticisms via Belén Fabra’s performance as Valére. She truly is a feminist hero for the 21st Century, smart and confident even while she’s introspective, spiritual and, yes, flawed. While many may criticize Valére’s decision to abandon her education and profession for prostitution (which happens in the film’s third act, and is undoubtedly the part that drew the Belle du Jour comparison), I’d argue that, for Valére, it’s merely a fact of making money at something she loves to do for free. In Fabra, Christian Molina has found an incredibly brave actress who’s able to pull off every facet of Valére’s character, from the sensual sexuality to the emotional vulnerability. Fabra’s performance during those emotional scenes is nearly strong enough to make me forget about the manipulative mawkishness behind them.
One undeniably fascinating aspect of the film is that Molina and Fabra achieve something that only one other film I’ve seen has achieved, and that’s to make Valére’s frequent nudity become commonplace and unnoticeable. The other film was Jaques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse. It’s fascinating because I’ve always felt nudity shouldn’t be as “shocking” as it is in film. The minute you see nudity on screen you become self-consciously aware of it. So for a film to create such a state of comfort with that nudity to the point that it becomes as commonplace as any costuming, it’s a remarkable achievement. Once the film gets past the concept of nudity and the explicitly erotic it’s also able to work in all of those other themes associated with sex: vulnerability, connection, spirituality, control and the conflicts of transient pleasure.
Molina’s direction is, perhaps, the lacking element here. Diary of a Nymphomaniac reveals a competent director who’s able to collect all the necessary parts but who lacks the artistry to put them all together satisfactorily. The film certainly isn’t without its moments that are well-shot and well-edited—indeed, the lighting near the ending is almost orgasmic in an angelic way—but, much like the screenplay, these moments seem to jut out of the whole rather than seamlessly integrate into it. Ultimately, Diary of a Nymphomaniac feels like a missed opportunity to add to that far too small canon of cinematic masterpieces that are as sexual as they are artistic.