Dir: Johan Renck. 2008. US. 96 mins.
A woman’s journey of self-hatred, self-degradation, self-mutilation and ultimately self-destruction courtesy of a murderous kindred spirit makes for grim viewing in Downloading Nancy, the feature debut of Swedish commercials and music video director Johan Renck. Although acted with conviction and directed with not a little style, the film is a misanthropic affair, its characters almost entirely beyond redemption; audiences everywhere will find it hard to stomach.
Only alternative distributors will be drawn by the ultra-bleak material and even then, mainly for release on DVD. Theatrical releases will be limited by the most prohibitive ratings and mediocre reviews.
Apparently inspired by true events, the film stars Maria Bello as Nancy Stockwell, a married woman whose childhood abuse at the hands of an uncle has left her permanently wounded and in a state of perpetual unhappiness.
As the film starts, her self-centred, golf-loving husband Albert (Sewell) arrives home to find a note from Nancy saying she has left for a few days to visit friends. As the days go by with no word from her, Albert starts to worry and the film recalls troubled episodes from their loveless marriage. We see how desperate Nancy has become, her screaming fits with her shrink (Brenneman), her tendency to cut herself with razor blades on her forearms and genitals.
Nancy has in fact gone to meet with Louis Farley (Patric), a mysterious man with whom she has been communicating via the internet for many months. The two have shared degrading sexual fantasies and Louis has agreed to kill her. Before the big deed, they have sex, and goaded on by her, he taunts her, blindfolds her, traps her feet in mousetraps and hurts her.
Before we know the outcome of their time together, the film cuts forward to the arrival of Louis at Albert’s house, posing as an internet technician. He straight away reveals himself as Nancy’s ally, saying that she is safe and trying to taunt Albert into taking some responsibility for his wife’s anguish. Albert beats and ties Louis up, but Louis refuses to tell him what has happened to her.
When he finally does, we relive the final moments of Nancy’s life. Louis, it turns out, has fallen in love with her and says he can’t kill her, but for Nancy, the greatest act of love would be to take her life and liberate her from her suffering.
Downloading Nancy covers similar subject matter as Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher), which also focused on a woman prone to self-degradation. But while Haneke never intended us to like his tortured protagonist, he succeeded in making us fascinated by her behaviour and locking us into her struggle for redemption. Renck, on the other hand, paints Nancy in such monochrome moods of rage and despair that her quest for freedom becomes as alienating and uninteresting as she is herself. Albert is loathsome, Louis pretty hateful as well.
Adding to the gloom, Renck sets the film in claustrophobic, dreary spaces - living room and basement in the house, therapist’s office, hotel rooms and half-filled party suites - while master cinematographer Chris Doyle imbues the whole with a murky, rotten pallour.
By the film’s end, it is all you can do not to take a shower and wash it all off.
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PH Clinkscales Sr
Philip H Clinkscales III
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