Cold and Black, and You’ll Still Whisper Yes: On Johan Renck’s Downloading Nancy
Downloading Nancy, Johan Renck, 2008
by Philippa Snow
dir. Johan Renck, 2008
When Nancy and her lover, Louis, are on the road somewhere outside Baltimore, and she has finally left her husband, and the world outside the car looks the way Louis told her she would feel when he stubbed out his cigarette on her bare skin — “cold, [and] black, and you’ll still whisper yes” — and he asks her if it’s okay, if everything is okay, she says: it’s perfect. Nancy has been married to a man who is not interested in anything other than golf for fifteen years, and after fifteen years of sleeping in the same bed as a stranger, she is ready to sleep indefinitely, and to let a new stranger orchestrate her fate. “Life,” she has told her therapist just before skipping town, “is like being trapped in the wrong house, looking for a way out.” She is intelligent, and beautiful, and she has been more or less dead inside since she was seven, when her uncle taught her to associate extreme pain with affection, and sex with annihilation. “That was his way of loving me,” she murmurs. “If I let him love me the way he wanted to, then I was showing him I loved him back. My uncle tore me up inside.” Auditioning Louis through the Internet, Nancy has finally succeeded in recruiting someone fucked-up enough, kinky enough and anonymous enough to spend his weekend sleeping with her, torturing her, and then finally helping her to find a way out of the wrong house. So, yes — everything is perfect. In forty-eight hours, Nancy will be dead, and free.
Downloading Nancy, a 2008 true crime film by Johan Renck, is not just critically divisive, but reviled. The mood at Sundance when it premiered was one of horror. Stark, ice-cold and shaded the same blue as heartbreak, it was provocative in the sense that it implied that death might be the most preferable outcome for its central character, and even more provocative because that central character was female, and saw being murdered by a man as a potentially erotic act. Worse still, her motivation was the same one used by countless screenwriters since time immemorial, i.e sexual abuse. Few character developments are lazier or more banal for women in the movies than abuse and rape, except perhaps for those surrounding pregnancy. Nancy, who was not only serially raped, but serially raped with such excessive force that she grew up infertile, gets to be the lucky recipient of both of the classic women’s curses from Screenwriting 101. At The New York Times, Manohla Dargis argued that Downloading Nancy was “a nasty exploitation flick tarted up with art-house actors and psychobabble,” and at Indiewire, Kristi Mitsuda called it “exploitative…[a] tiresome provocation… cinematic masturbation.” Twice, Nancy tells a character that they don’t know what pain is, a presumably-unintentional homage to Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. Twice, her sessions with her therapist are used to sketch her motivation, a device only a little more sophisticated than an expository phone call.
And yet: I saw Downloading Nancy for the first time on a sultry night this summer, when the world outside was not yet cold and black, and have not stopped thinking about it since. I did not mind its nastiness, its sudden violence. I did not take any issue with its nearness to “one of those repulsive horror flicks by the Austrian whack job Michael Haneke,” as Rex Reed wrote in the Observer, maybe because I appreciate those same repulsive horror flicks by the Austrian whack job Michael Haneke. For once, I did not care that Nancy’s self-destructiveness came from abuse.
What I cared most about was the central performance by Maria Bello, who is by turns deathly still and borderline-psychotic, a masterful rendering of a suburban wife with violence in her blood. She had me sold from her first shot, a close-up of her face as she is on the Greyhound bus to meet her killer, and spellbound until her last, an image of her dead that somehow conveys tenderness, a willingness to die, and some unknowable romantic satisfaction all at the same time. “I literally looked upon it as a little harmless drama about an unhappy woman in a very bad marriage with a terrible guy,” Renck told The Los Angeles Times, hopefully being facetious. That the marriage is bad hardly matters. That the guy is terrible is negligible, given that it does not seem as though what Nancy needs is to be saved. For her, there have been what appear to be three distinct, mostly-painful acts: her life before her uncle’s serial rape, her life between the ages of seven and now, and her life in the days or weeks between selecting her potential murderer, and death.
For her, too, the last act is the most enlivening. When Louis has her walk across the floor of a hotel room in a blindfold, mouse-traps underneath her bare feet, she just giggles. In the hardware store, the two of them browsing for implements of torture, she is giddy like she’s on a first date rather than a last one. Bello allows Nancy to appear to be electrified by her proximity to death, and plays her fidgety and dull-eyed whenever she has to suffer the indignity of still being alive — what remains of her is thanatotic, single-minded in its drive, so that the body is an afterthought.
Downloading Nancy is the inverse of a body horror movie, positing that what is evil and untenable is consciousness. Hell is other people; it is also being a person. If Renck does not possess the elegance or the sophistication of a director like Philippe Grandrieux, he has succeeded in producing something as unsettlingly scuzzy as, say, Grandrieux’s La Vie Nouvelle, whose scenes of sexual assault are as unpleasant as the ‘love’ scenes in Downloading Nancy, and whose vision of the world is equally devoid of hope or meaning. Equally light on what might traditionally be described as “narrative,” too: in La Vie Nouvelle, a young American G.I. falls for a sex-trafficked showgirl-cum-prostitute, and desires to free her in the selfish, sexually-motivated way typical of the men who desire to free sex-workers in the movies. Little else happens. The frenetic, sometimes abstract camerawork mimics an epileptic seizure: an emergency, or a catastrophe, of both the body and the mind.
“Grandrieux’s work plunges us into every kind of obscurity,” suggests the Australian critic Adrian Martin — “moral ambiguity, narrative enigma, literal darkness… La Vie Nouvelle [in particular] explores a punk-Sadean view of the human animal and crumbling social structures… All embraces are potentially violent.” A scene in Grandrieux’s film that depicts the trafficked woman, Mélania, getting her head shaved by a pimp remains one of the most unsettling rape scenes I have ever seen onscreen, despite showing no actual, penetrative rape: an act of desexualisation becomes, paradoxically, a metaphor for sexual assault, in the same way that Nancy’s murder ends up being shot as if it is not actually a death scene, but a love scene. “The cutting of Mélania’s hair,” Martin continues, “[is] a gesture as excruciatingly extended in time as it is collapsed in space.” When Louis finally strangles Nancy, it is mercifully brief. What is excruciatingly extended, agonizing to the point of fetishizing the suggestion of release, is the depiction of the last days of her life. The critic Nicole Brenez once described La Vie Nouvelle as “the first film shot inside the human body,” meaning both that it remained absent of light in the same way as the interior of a person, visceral and reddish-dark, and that it replicated something of the real experience of being alive and an animal — of having blood and arteries; a cock; a heart; a cunt.
Downloading Nancy, for all of its cutting and its S&M, is sallow, blue where it ought to be flesh-coloured and cold where it ought to be temperate. It may be the first film shot inside a human body whose continued life is immaterial to its host. “This has to be the ugliest film ever shot by that remarkable cameraman Christopher Doyle,” The Hollywood Reporter griped, missing the fact that Doyle no doubt intended its anonymous hotels and suburbs to look not just bloodless, but necrotic; to critique Downloading Nancy for appearing too depressing is like calling out Doyle’s work on In The Mood For Love for looking too alive, too much like romance.
Or else: through Bello, it evades the body altogether, and becomes a film shot inside an unquiet, disconnected mind. There is this one scene. At a work event, the conference room filled with sad, baby-pink balloons, Nancy sits next to her husband in a gown so pale that it might be a wedding dress. She is a little hunched, her posture at first looking like she might be bored, and then revealing itself to be something different: whoever is operating her machinery seems drugged. Her eyes, a beat too slow to focus, barely register the room. Anybody who is familiar with dissociation, a sudden and frightening alienation from one’s body that results in something like mental paralysis, will recognise the mood. When a man decides to tell a story about a depressive woman, it’s “exploitative,” “a tiresome provocation”; when a woman does it, it’s “a personal essay,” and to bolster my own argument in favour of this film by leaning on my own experience of mental illness would be too easy, too boring, and too cheap a trick to bother with. What I will say is that a feeling that is so hard to elucidate, like moving on a time-lag underwater, must be hard as hell to act, and harder still to nail. I will say, too, that Bello does not simply nail it — she destroys it. Her dilatory movements, as unbearable as cigarette burns, scar the mind.
“When I read Nancy, it wasn’t like she was an absurd character,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “She was real, considering the people I know and the ostracizing that goes on in society with mental illness and sexual violence and the ostracizing that goes on within oneself, the shame about all those things.” The real shame of Downloading Nancy is the fact that for the most part, audiences did not see the work that Bello put into realising the character of Nancy Stockwell, and that she did not end up competing alongside Kate Winslet or Anne Hathaway at that year’s Oscars. What her unrecognised genius made me think of was another barnstorming performance in a film that many critics did not care for, that the general public did not see, portraying dissociation and gendered, sexual violence in a way that did offer easy answers: Laura Dern, playing a minimum of three characters in the last theatrical release by David Lynch, 2006’s Inland Empire, performed the same trick of sustained self-immolation for the camera. Despite Lynch’s best and wackiest efforts to net her a nomination for Best Actress, her unhinged, elastic turn remained a cult concern.
One of Dern’s multiple personas in Inland Empire is a victim of abuse, a miserable suburban wife. “Some men change,” she tells a man who might be a psychiatrist, bitterly. “Well, they don’t change —they reveal. They reveal themselves over time, you know?” The two men in Downloading Nancy, one a killer bore and the other an actual killer, do not reveal much about themselves. Albert, the husband, remains dull and disinterested, even when Nancy cuts herself, or begs to be fucked, or spends night after night surfing BDSM chatrooms on the web. Louis, a man with a full bookcase of mysterious tapes and an apparent willingness to kill a stranger, obfuscates whenever Nancy asks about his life: “The scars you get, the scars they get. It’s mom, it’s dad, it’s wife, it’s all the same, it doesn’t matter.” Only Nancy, as figured by Bello, totally reveals herself. Downloading Nancy, at its dénouement, purports to have been “based on true events.” It’s true that a suburban a woman named Sharon Lopotka did enlist a man that she met online to murder her in 1996; it’s true the act was sexual, premeditated and successful. What we don’t know is her motivation, so that everything that Bello teases out of Nancy is conjecture. How astounding, then, that it feels like the truest thing about the movie. The only thing Lopotka ever said on record about her desire to be killed was, almost unbelievably: “I want the real thing.”
About the Author:
Philippa Snow is a writer, based in Norwich. Her reviews and essays have appeared in or at publications including Artforum, Sight & Sound, GARAGE, Frieze, The White Review, and Tank magazine.