Bare life

Pub date July 8, 2009
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review


In one of the many oblique exchanges between potential suicide Nancy Stockwell (Maria Bello) and her killer-cum-suitor Louis Farley (Jason Patric), the sadist asks his victim how she imagines death. Staring at a nearby aquarium teeming with wandering fish, Stockwell gleefully responds that death is a release — like one of them, you can breathe underwater. Swedish music video director Johan Renck’s first feature, Downloading Nancy is largely a meditation on such metaphysical atmospheres — the suffocating air of tract homes, the cold showers of sexual dysfunction, the liquid plasma of the sickly blue computer screen — and one woman’s compulsion for escape.

After a childhood of cruel sexual abuse and 15 years of pitiless marriage to game developer Albert (Rufus Sewell), Nancy retreats from her life of desperation and sets upon a pernicious odyssey. Determined to slough off her physical body and all of its mundane accoutrements, she enlists Internet pal Louis, an S&M fetishist and videographer, to pleasure and then kill her in a cyber-sacrifice. As the unnerving danse macabre gets underway, Nancy and Louis tease death with self-mutilation and torture, using razor blades, mousetraps, and lit cigarettes to chilling, depraved effect. Nancy’s bare arms and legs contain an archive of scars and burn marks, as do other hidden cavities she will puncture before reaching orgasm. Louis, stoic and increasingly conflicted about their atrocious pact, often trades away the pleasure of his own sexual fantasy in order to question Nancy’s real motivations or persuade her back toward life. Trading roles of executioner and executed, these lost souls teeter on a threshold where the sovereignty of sacrifice fades imperceptibly into the debasement of living death. Does Nancy’s ultimatum to her new beau constitute the ultimate instance of a woman’s seduction — or the complete penetration of the digital world into a simulacrum of unsacrificable flesh?

Equally as unnerving are the scenes of Nancy’s former life with Albert, a vampirous clone of the business world. When Nancy vanishes — her depraved goal unbeknownst to Albert — he wanders through the sickly mauve interior of the house, putter in hand, desperately trying to understand where their life went astray, all the while sneaking glances at the computer that had consumed Nancy’s life.

Despite some scenes of lugubrious pretension (particularly the "therapy" sessions between Bello and Amy Brenneman as her savior-psychologist), Downloading Nancy achieves a dubious distinction: it presents a model of posthuman mortality that oscillates between the bare life of the mutilated body and the de-corporeal skin of the digital screen. Renck employed cinematographer extraordinaire Christopher Doyle to enhance the feeling of mise en abyme by coloring everything in etiolated blues and grays. The result is a dystopic recreation of the present (here there are obvious comparisons to Cronenberg’s 1996 Crash) where boredom has supplanted the titillation of apocalypse. When Louis finally agrees to participate in the penultimate encounter, what ensues is a numbing anticlimax beyond (or beneath) the meaningfulness of sacrifice.

DOWNLOADING NANCY opens July 10 in Bay Area theaters.