“For me, love was just lust with jealousy added. Everything else was total nonsense.”
For starters, I would like to address the notion of a Volume 1 and a Volume 2. There is no Volume I and Volume 2. These are not sequels. It is one long movie (between 4.5 and 5.5 hours, depending if you watch the Director’s Cuts or not) that was split into two films for theatrical release purposes (and for the sanity of the audience). Think of it like Kill Bill, only with lots of close up shots of hairy pussy.
Before we get into Nymphomaniac, I feel I must address where it falls within his body of work. Lars von Trier makes series of trilogies connected by themes: Europa (The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa), Golden Heart (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark), and USA: Land of Opportunity (Dogville – von Trier’s masterpiece, Manderlay, and the unproduced Wasington).
Nymphomaniac is Part III of his Depression Trilogy, a very personal inflection for von Trier. Part I is Antichrist, a similar film in tone and superior in execution to Nymphoniac, telling the story of a woman who is so traumatized by the death of her child while she was having sex that she devotes her life to being sexually punished. Part II is Melancholia – for my money von Trier’s most indulgent, boring, and overrated film – which is about a woman whose depression over her husband’s disappearance is exacerbated by the pending destruction of the world.
Nymphomaniac is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in yet another bold role) and how sex simultaneously gave her meaning and ruined her life. The film, like all of the director’s work, has a fairy tale quality, illuminated by its very over written dialogue, moralizing tone, and storybook structure.
Joe is found bloodied and barely alive in a snow laden alleyway by Seligman (von Trier stalwart, Stellan Skarsgard). She refuses to allow him to call the police or an ambulance; as he learns when he takes her back to his house, she is “a horrible person.” The intimation is that she deserved her abuse. And for the next four plus hours, she is going to tell us why.
What follows are a series of sexual encounters and experiences, ranging from “discovering her cunt” at two years old to abandoning her child for the daily beatings of a man she knows only as “K” to her time as a dominatrix style mafioso. Each chapter is heavily narrated by Joe from Selingard’s home and intercut with polemical conversations on the merits of faith, nature, love, and sexuality. It reminds one of the Marquis de Sade’s Conversations between a Priest and a Dying Man only not as eloquently written and even less necessary. These seemingly endless scenes, while setting up a well structured and inevitable ending, read as theatrical in the most negative of ways and not only slow up the action, but damn near bring the whole thing to a screeching halt.
Fortunately, there are another seemingly endless series of scenes both “pornographic” and dramatic (and dramatically pornographic) to make you want to start the film over and give it another chance. For me, these scenes are where the film really finds its wings. The acting by the amazing cast – notably Stacy Martin as Young Joe and Gainsbourg – is layered and daring not only for their physical nudity (although that would be enough for Hollywood standards), but for their emotional nudity. Unfortunately, not enough people will suffer through the quagmire to mine the diamonds buried at the bottom of the swamp when they are filling out their Oscar ballots. Other stand-out performances include Shia LaBeouf as Joe’s one true love, Jerome; Jamie Bell as the sadistic K; and Uma Thurman in a phenomenal turn as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s latest conquests – seriously, why do more directors not give her a chance?
For all the sex in the film – and there is a lot of sex in the film – you begin to numb to it rather quickly, which is part of Lars’ point (lest you don’t glean this as one of the dominant themes, just wait for the didactic monologue at the end to wrap it all up…). Lars’ concern here is not sex, but depression and how this woman, despite all of her protestations, uses sex to fill the…uh-hum….void within herself, a void presumably created by the death of her father (Christian Slater), although her behavior is not as easily explained away as it is in Antichrist. Supplant sex for any other “accepted” form of addiction – booze, gambling, cocaine – and it takes a lot of the shock factor out of it.
Yet the fact that it would be construed as shocking is precisely the reason Lars used sex as the drug of choice. Known for always pushing the most controversial of buttons, tearing up any envelope on the table, Nymphomaniac at times reads as forced and contrived, particularly because Lars’ signature tone is an unrelenting brand of ironic melodrama, always on the cusp of humor and devastation; The Lost Weekend, this is not. Lars somehow succeeds in poking fun at the ridiculousness of sex being taboo by precisely using the idea that sex is taboo as his raison d’être.
A note on the sex: Nymphomaniac is full of some of the most realistic sex you will ever see. There is a very good and impressive reason for that. It is real. Now before you get too excited that you have seen Shia LaBeouf’s erect penis (perhaps that was just me…), none of the “actors” in the film had sex. Interestingly, Lars von Trier, a man known for very gritty realism, has turned in some of the greatest CGI this side of Avatar. The scenes of fellatio are done with prosthetics and the hardcore sex shots (penetration, severe spankings, and close ups of genitalia) were painstakingly digitally altered by merging the upper bodies of the stars with the lower bodies of porn actors. The result is absolutely seamless. (To wit, Lars von Trier produces a line of pornography geared toward feminine pleasure, which if you have seen his oeuvre is most ironic…)
The more I think about Nymphomaniac the more I begin to reassess its merits. My healthy bias for Lars von Trier is clouding what I thought to be objective criticism and is causing me to wonder if I am properly categorizing this as Bad Cinema – a column that unquestionably includes epic turds like The Greatest Show on Earth and Heartbeeps.
‘Tis the joys and burdens of being a von Trier fan. No other filmmaker tests your stamina for melodrama, your threshold for female mutilation (physical and emotional), and your commitment to sticking with a film whose pacing unfolds like real life; von Trier’s greatest asset and liability. In totem, Nymphomaniac, while a bloated mess in need of a pair of scissors, is worth a viewing. Perhaps I should give Melancholia another go…