"Downloading Nancy": A History of Desire By Anjelika Artyukh

in 19th Stockholm Film Festival

by Anjelika Artyukh

The Stockholm International Film Festival has traditionally served as a showcase for directors in search of out-of-the-ordinary ways of expressing their visions. The films in competition are usually debut and second features; if a third film makes it into the competition is an exception to the rule.

How do we measure the contemporary moment? How does it reveal itself? Can we say that it is in rapid flux, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues in his programmatic book “Liquid Modernity” (Cambridge, 2000)? Or are there still stable structures at work within it, bastions of value that keep the individual this side of despair and madness? Answering these questions is one of the central themes of the films in competition at the Stockholm Festival, which aspires to avoid all the pitfalls of “festivalism”. This means it refuses to become a star-studded vanity fair that peddles cheap attractions and makes a fuss about its status.

The film that opened the competition this year was something of an event. Swedish music video director Johan Renck’s debut film Downloading Nancy was shot with American money and is based on real events. After fifteen years of marriage to a businessman, housewife Nancy (Maria Bello) makes the decision to take her life. Over the years Nancy has accumulated such a freight of sexual and emotional dissatisfaction that she no longer feels pain. Frankly, pain is not enough for her. She slashes herself with a razor in the bathroom, and the scars she leaves on her arms and legs are like marks for her many years of desperation and loneliness. She combs the Internet in search of a man who can satisfy her last desire — to kill herself.

Since the days of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (this year the festival honored that film’s star, Charlotte Rampling, with a Lifetime Achievement Award), cinema has attempted to persuade us that sadomasochistic sex, however problematic, is more capable of bringing people together than romantic love. It is a mixture of sex and pain that brings Nancy into the arms of an unprepossessing guy from Baltimore. He stands in stark contrast to Nancy’s active, socialized husband, who despite his sexual impotence has become a quite successful businessman. After several days of inflicting pain on each other and quenching their desires (the film presents these scenes with a great deal of self-censorship — that is, with television rights in mind), the two lovers arrive at a moment of unexpected tenderness — a long first kiss that is presented as a kind of showstopper that brings a halt to their cruel rituals. Christopher Doyle’s camera pirouettes around the smooching sadomasochists for quite a long while, as it were recording the euphoria of a first date. It is symbolic that this long-anticipated first kiss happens in a pet shop against the backdrop of an aquarium filled with goldfish. The fish are meant to symbolize the heroine’s romantic desire, which arises seemingly out of nowhere. It is she who asks to be kissed. No less important is the fact that this scene is meant to fulfill the desire of the ordinary viewer, trained by Hollywood and television, to see a form of traditional romantic love on the screen. This episode employs subtle irony to lash out at the modern world and art’s place in it. As the Russian critic Boris Groys has written, “In the modern world the artist is wholly at the mercy of the public.” If it doesn’t like his work of art, then it has no value whatsoever. This is the principal shortcoming of contemporary art: its dependence on the opinions and tastes of the viewer deprive it of its own self-worth.

Johan Renck heeds the public almost unconsciously. It is hardly any wonder that he has shot videos for the likes of Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Sade and Robbie Williams. It is in this scene that he reminds us that he is an accomplished video director and is thus capable of whipping up a short visual solo for his leading lady. He knows that no amount of complexity and provocation should get in the way of viewer expectations. If a woman meets a man onscreen (albeit via kinky sex), this means that the conventions of melodrama are in force, and those conventions dictate a kiss to highlight the leading lady’s powerful aura.

Maria Bello was obviously cast in the role of Nancy thanks to David Cronenberg’s unforgettable A History of Violence. Renck is unabashed in his fan worship of the Canadian genius. Like him, Renck understands that experimenting with one’s own body is a means of finding one’s own way of living and of resisting the madness of everyday life, something neither the institution of marriage nor psychoanalysis can cope with. The film has a complicated narrative structure. Amidst the flashbacks and fast-forwards of the plot, we discover a not altogether unsympathetic portrayal of Nancy’s futile and hopeless attempts to explain her desires and problems to her psychoanalyst.

As a housewife whose life is determined by daily chores and care for her husband (they have no children), Nancy has no hope of undergoing a productive socialization that would take a bit of the edge off her harsh existence. Her utter inability to navigate society is illustrated in several episodes. (For example, at a shop and a restaurant, Nancy continually harasses people who stare in disbelief at manifestations of her sexual ‘mania’, while at a reception in honor of her businessman-husband she has no strength to chitchat with anyone at all.) Nancy gazes at the world through the screen of the Internet. She masturbates in front of it, thus letting the viewer know that her desire carries her beyond the bounds of accepted reality. She systematically plans her death, concisely formulating her only goal in life in her farewell letter to her husband.

It is telling that not a single traditional sex act is shown in the film. Spousal intimacy has been replaced by Nancy’s husband masturbating on top of her, while her dalliance with her new acquaintance is a series of pleasure-inducing acts of torture. The genuine union of two people is substituted by a romantic kiss as well as by the murder in the finale (Nancy’s dream finally come true). Renck paints a portrait of a profoundly diseased society, but at the same time he is firmly convinced that even perverse desire conceals the possibility of human connection, thus holding out the hope not only of finding love, but also of being integrated into society.