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Shocked? The director certainly was

Some films court controversy. Other films, controversy just finds them. “Downloading Nancy,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York, appears to be doing a bit of both.

This kind of disputation -- organic or manufactured -- can overwhelm a film and obscure its more genuine, less sensationalistic qualities. “Downloading Nancy,” which bills itself as “the most controversial film you will see this year” on its poster, opens with scenes suggesting extreme online kinkiness before veering into more genuinely disturbing places. It’s a deeply disquieting and unrelenting film -- a most unsexy movie that’s at least partly about sex.

Before it premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival as part of the Narrative Competition -- one of the most scrutinized, heavily covered sections of the festival -- “Downloading Nancy” had generated a palpable buzz of expectation. Geoff Gilmore, then director of the festival, introduced the film by calling it “the most intense film of the festival.” It was, in a sense, all downhill from there.

“I had not in my wildest dreams thought going to Sundance with this movie would lead people to walk out in disgust,” director Johan Renck recalled during a recent interview. “I literally looked upon it as a little harmless drama about an unhappy woman in a very bad marriage with a terrible guy. But the fact this movie carries you where it does, I had no idea that people would be so disturbed, angry, heartbroken. I had no idea it would go so far.”

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The movie tells the story of Nancy (Maria Bello), a woman who while in a lonely, empty marriage to Albert (Rufus Sewell) engages in a torrid, twisted affair online with Louis (Jason Patric). This is intercut with moments of Nancy with a therapist (Amy Brenneman), which leads the audience to believe that, far from a consenting adult, this is a woman who is mentally ill. Nancy eventually leaves Albert to go to Louis in the hopes that he will end her anguished depression by fulfilling her wish that he kill her as part of a sexual encounter.

Following the film’s Sundance premiere, in one of its more positive (or perhaps least negative) reviews, Variety proclaimed the film “a forbidding and morbid piece of psycho-sadomasochism,” while the Hollywood Reporter simply decried it as “pointless self-indulgence.” Gossip columnist Roger Friedman declared the film the worst of the festival and “completely unwatchable,” before adding that he walked out.

“It’s definitely the most divisive film I’ve ever been in,” actress Bello said in a separate interview. “Part of me is pleased with how it was taken at Sundance.”

Written by Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross, “Downloading Nancy” is the feature debut from Renck, a Swedish music video and commercial director (and onetime European pop star) whose previous work includes videos for the likes of Madonna and Kylie Minogue. Renck enlisted many people he already knew from his previous work, including cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has worked with Wong Kar-wai, Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch, and production designer Lauri Faggioni, known for her whimsical work with Michel Gondry.

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In some ways, the extreme reactions to the film speak to how carefully crafted and affecting it is, leaving viewers with no emotional orientation by which to find their way through such a difficult and disturbing tale. The howls of outrage only exemplify how horrifying certain events are, but do little to give a sense at how acutely, and in some ways, sensitively, the film portrays them. The movie’s flat aesthetics, coating everything with disconcerting, queasy drabness, turns everyday items and places -- a cigarette butt, a Chinese restaurant, a mousetrap -- into instruments and arenas of self-loathing. It’s unpleasant, but that by definition doesn’t make it any less compelling.

For Renck, the film is about “several love stories, good ones and bad ones.” He found himself hooked by the abstract idea of just how far one would go for someone else. “It is obviously absurd,” he said of the notion of killing one’s lover as the ultimate proof of love, “and it is bizarre, but it’s an interesting, challenging thought -- what will I sacrifice for you if that’s what you really want. And I like to be in that world with them, this sort of dark, brutal place without an end to it.”

An unlikely actor’s showcase, the film gives Patric, Sewell and Brenneman room for emotionally convincing performances. For Bello it is a singular, bravura turn of wild extremes, veering into dark corners of the human psyche that few like to consider, let alone attempt to portray.

“I felt such an affinity for Nancy and an understanding of her for some reason,” Bello said of what drew her to such a seemingly distasteful role, while adding that it reminded her of women she has encountered while doing volunteer work with victims of sexual abuse. “So when I read Nancy, it wasn’t like she was an absurd character. 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.”

For Renck, who is currently trying to get another film project together while still taking the occasional commercial or music video assignment, the process of “Downloading Nancy” has been an instructive one. “To me, when I was doing it, I was never concerned if it was unsettling or unforgiving,” he said. “I wanted to be totally ruthless. You can argue that as right or wrong, and now I can see the wrongness of that somehow.”

“Movies are made for people to pay and go see them,” he said.

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calendar@latimes.com

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