Two minutes of a blank black screen accompanied by the sounds of traffic, rainfall, creaking gates and inner city ambience. Dimly lit, beautifully shot alleyways fade into view, as snow slowly falls on the ground… and then Rammstein burst onto the soundtrack. It’s incongruous and oddly hilarious, but compared to the operatic penetration featuring accidental child death of Antichrist and the surreal apocalyptic fever dream of Melancholia, the opening of Lars von Trier’s latest is decidedly and remarkably restrained. It might shock you to discover, for a film so heavily marketed on its carnal aspects and not its cinematography, that this Malickian calm and focus on surroundings remains a consistent feature throughout.
Nymphomaniac is many things: a four hour opus split into two parts, the concluding part to von Trier’s “depression” trilogy, possibly the most graphic film to be released in actual cinemas since the era of sexploitation in the ‘70s, an example of why Shia LeBeofuf shouldn’t ever be allowed near a camera of any sort ever again… throughout its 228 minutes. Nymphomaniac is thought-provoking, fascinating, problematic, intelligent, frustrating, wry, dull, funny, engrossing and utterly beguiling, but the lengthy runtime is nothing compared to the amount of time that will be spent analysing and debating the themes and ideas put forward by von Trier.
Lying bruised, bloodied and beaten in one those peaceful alleys in the opening minutes is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the titular ‘maniac and self-declared “bad human being”. She’s happened upon by asexual intellectual virgin Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who brings her home out of the kindness of his Samaritany heart. Joe then begins to regale her host with a sexual history of all four decades of her life, with Seligman listening attentively and offering comment and interpretation.
I’ll be honest, the entire film could’ve just been Joe and Seligman’s conversation with no flashbacks, nipples or flaccid dicks and I’d have been equally enraptured. Their discussion and the contexts they use are utterly fascinating; fly-fishing, the fibonacci sequence, the eastern and western split of the Catholic church, polyphonic harmonies, the Prusik knot, Edgar Allen Poe and more find their way into the conversation and make for some truly exemplary moments of filmmaking, the fifth chapter of the film entitled The Little Organ School, in particular.
That said, this is von Trier, the clown prince/the prankster god of cinema. Neither half of Nymphomaniac was ever going to be an entirely intellectual investigation into sex addiction, and of course there’s a lot of the old in-out, not quite as much as you’d expect, but still enough to make this a film you’d want to view with any family members nearby. There’s also a hell of a lot of provocation at play, as if von Trier is intentionally trying to wind up certain sections of his audience. There’s debate over certain actions being inherently masculine and feminine, but there’s also a calling out of internalised misogyny (the acknowledgement of which, let alone the condemnation of, I’ve found to be virtually non-existent in mainstream media). There’s the framing of a nude Gainsbourg between two African immigrants’ erect penises, there’s the utterance of the phrase “I first discovered my cunt at the age of two”, there’s an anxiety-inducing, Pavlovian callback to those opening minutes of Antichrist, a slideshow of an array of flaccid phalluses in all shapes and sizes (which ends in a shot of Skarsgard’s equally wrinkled visage; a childish gag but also a bloody funny one), a wonderful perversion of the “Graduate” shot, a clearly intentionally controversial and baffling-but-thought-provoking conversation, (which could be seen as an internal moral conflict of von Trier played out on screen) containing the line “a paeodphile who manages to get through life with the shame of his desire while never acting on it deserves a bloody medal”; von Trier is poking many sleeping bears from behind his camera, and as I said before, it’s sure to instigate debate and analysis for months and years to come.
But it has to be said, where Volume One is the heady hedonistic pseudo-romp, Volume Two is a slightly dull ache of comedown, devoid of the verve of the preceding two hours. Perhaps this view is formed purely from the artificial separation of Nymphomaniac; if presented as one colossal four-hour block, maybe the differences in the two halves, the tonal shift would’ve seemed more gradual, less stark. As it stands, I imagine any time the urge comes to watch Volume One again, a viewing of Volume Two will seem worthwhile if only to have more time in von Trier’s mind.
The formatting of the film helps with digesting it too. For the first volume, the younger Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin (a genuinely astonishing debut performance), with contemporary Joe (Joe Prime, perhaps?) as played by Gainsbourg restricted to narration and framing scenes, and it’s this disconnect which reinforces our protagonist as an unreliable narrator, someone who clearly hates her past self. It’s near masterful and both Gainsbourg and Martin deserve every plaudit and bit of praise they receive. I would suggest award nominations, but c’mon, that’s not going to happen is it?
The rest of the cast form both the biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses of the film. As stated, Skarsgard is superb as the all-knowledge, no-experience Seligman, whilst Jamie Bell excels as the cold, mechanical bondage master and Uma Thurman’s brief cameo is barnstorming, enough to banish her recent rough cinematic patch (in fact, the entirety of that particular chapter is a highlight). But it’s Christian Slater’s flatness as Joe’s father, Mia Goth’s awkward younger lover and the utter awfulness of Shia LeBeouf that really hinder potentially great sequences. LeBeouf’s accent is just implacable, possibly the worst attempt at a London accent since Dick Van Dyke first started sweeping chimneys.
For all its flaws and for all von Trier’s transparent attempts at shit-stirring, Nymphomaniac is a film which will become recommended viewing for anyone with an interest in film that stretches beyond tentpole releases and award bait. It’s frustrating, confusing, dense, laugh-out-loud funny, grotesque, cold, warm, provocative, brash, subtle, tough… it’s far from perfect, and that average rating below may belie this statement, but it really is something that needs to be seen.
Volume One: ★★★★☆
Volume Two: ★★☆☆☆