Cinema Review: Nymph()maniac: Vols I & II

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DIR/WRI: Lars von Trier • PRO: Louise Vesth • DOP: Manuel Alberto Claro • ED: Morten Højbjerg, Molly Marlene Stensgaard • DES: Simone Grau • CAST: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin

 

No point beating around the bush (regrettably, puns are difficult to avoid when we’re dealing with this film): this is a four-hour long Lars Von Trier film – split in two for mass market consumption – about a sex addict, in which the ‘o’ in the title has been replaced with a symbol for a vagina. Before we discuss the specifics of the film(s), I’m pretty sure a lot of viewers will have a pretty clear idea of what they’re letting themselves in for. I don’t like to predict what any given viewer will think of a film, but I’d be fairly certain a considerable percentage of both von Trier fans and critics will find more than enough here to support their existing stances.

 

In many ways, this is the film von Trier was always going to make. Throughout cinema history, we can identify the point when many of a filmmaker’s key concerns, themes and style reach something of a natural culmination through a single film. I’d include the likes of Bergman’s Persona, Kurosawa’s Ran, Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu or Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Obviously none of these films were the final or definitive statements from any of these directors, but they can, in their way, be seen as the films their respective auteurs were always going to make given their interests up until that point.

 

I’m not putting Nymph()maniac – I feel silly typing those brackets, so I’ll stop now – up there with Vertigo, or favourably comparing von Trier with Mizoguchi (there’s certainly a great essay about how those two male directors portray their predominantly female protagonists and their roles in society). But many von Trier films have explored sexuality and attempted to understand the fairer sex: The Idiots, Breaking The Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay, Antichrist etc… With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is far more literal and, let’s be honest, explicit with his intentions. Indeed, one scene is a direct callback to that infamous prologue to Antichrist, albeit with a notably different conclusion. Overall, however, this is perhaps the textbook example of a Lars von Trier film. The results, predictably, are intriguing, frustrating, smart and ridiculous.

 

The titular Nymphomaniac is named Joe, who is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin (as a young Joe) and, briefly, by a trio of child actresses. The film opens with a man called Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finding Joe badly beaten in an alleyway. Taking her home for rest and shelter, the kind and gentle Seligman listens attentively as Joe tells him her life story – with, as you might imagine, a particular focus on her sex life – over the course of eight separate chapters. The chapters are in manys ways episodic albeit ultimately forming a relatively complete ‘whole’. There is one near constant, and that is Jerome (Shia LeBeouf): the man with whom Joe lost her virginity. Jerome pops up several times over the course of Joe’s tale, and it’s his repeated presence – one of only two of Joe’s relationships that could be called ‘romantic’ – that gives the film a kind of overall narrative skeleton, alongside the recurring conversation between Joe and Seligman.

 

The episodic structure could be seen as both a weakness and a strength. It allows von Trier a stylistic freedom – the film is mostly shot in a consistent handheld style, but chapter four, for example, is presented in black and white (suiting the sequence’s more melancholic tone), while the chapter preceding it is a shot in a different aspect ratio to the rest of the film. Other sequences utilise stylistic tricks including giant superimposed text, split-screen and rapid montages of photographs of penises (yep). The structure also offers von Trier the opportunity to explore a range of different topics – from ponderings on love to the unique appeal of sadomasochism.

 

The film’s far-and-away best chapter is the third, entitled Mrs. H, in which Uma Thurman appears as a spurned wife whose husband (Hugo Speer) has just left home to move in with Joe (who, it should be pointed out, has no intentions of allowing such a thing, having simply led Mr. H on as part of an elaborate, randomised tease she engages in with all of her partners). It’s a terrifically weird, uncomfortable and amusing sequence, with Mrs. H bringing her young children along to show them the ‘whoring bed’. It’s a self-contained story – albeit one that provides an insight into the consequences of Joe’s actions – but an example of how the film benefits from the episodic approach.

 

This approach does lead to an overall sense of unevenness. The first chapter is perhaps the least interesting of all, von Trier deciding to have Seligman frequently interrupt the narrative to expand on forced, awkward metaphors, with several chapters given particular ponderous titles – e.g. The Eastern and Western Church (The Silent Duck). I hate to use the word ‘pretentious’ (the least useful word in film criticism), but certainly when the film cuts away to try and draw an extended comparison to Fibonacci sequences you kind of wish von Trier would get back on point. Indeed, the voiceover and philosophical ponderings generally veer wildly between interesting and absurd, although at least von Trier allows Joe to sardonically comment on that fact later on.

 

As ever, von Trier manages to cross to merrily provoke and troll in equal measure. The latter begins early, with a quiet, serene opening scene very bluntly interrupted by a Rammstein music cue being blasted out at top volume. One is never quite sure whether film’s explicit content and language is designed to create a brutally honest portrait of sexuality, or whether it’s primarily intended for shock value. This is perhaps most obvious in a strange series of scenes where Joe has an encounter with a pair of African men (Papou and Kookie Ryan), where the intentions and commentary are so ambiguous it’s hard to know what to make of any of it. Perhaps that’s von Trier intention, though: to make a film that’s wide open to discussion, disagreements and analysis. He’s not exactly the kind of guy who actively avoids a bit of controversy, after all, and the film’s many attempts to address issues of sexuality and gender are inevitably going to divide. We could call it ‘feminist’ cinema, but I could easily imagine many subscribers to that school of criticism vocally rejecting that description.

 

That said, there are plenty of genuinely interesting moments and insights throughout the film. Joe is a complex, curious character throughout, with Gainsbourg and Martin portraying various stages of pride, desperation, pleasure, self-loathing, grief, passion and more over the course of many twists and turns. Joe can be a bit of a cypher – sometimes frustratingly so, other times fascinatingly so. A few chapters – such as the one dealing with the illness of her father (Christian Slater) or her attempts to conquer a particular numbness – can be relatively poignant in their own eccentric way. Von Trier’s presentation can often be purposefully emotionally removed, but there is a vibrant character study film at Nyphomaniac’s core.

 

There’s a whole lot to talk about when it comes to this film, so I’ll race through two last points. First is concerning the supporting cast. A range of familiar faces pop up, some only granted a scene or two – Connie Nielsen as Joe’s mother, for example, must surely have had a much more substantial role at some point. Jamie Bell is a standout as a strict S&M master, and as mentioned Thurman steals the show. LaBeouf is a weak-link though, with his truly appalling attempt at an English accent. And just a quick note on the two volume presentation (which, to add some more confusion, is the ‘cut’ version – the uncut or ‘hardcore’ version adds another hour and a half to the four-hour version being released into Irish cinemas, although a lot of that is more sex). It’s a bit of a shame, as the film is clearly one complete work – semi-suddenly cutting to credits during Volume 1, and continuing on without a breath at the start of Volume 2. No doubt the split will benefit cinemas and distributor Artificial Eye financially, but I for one would recommend trying to see them both at the same time if at all possible.

Well, that’s Nymphomaniac then. Say what you will about von Trier, but this is most definitely a film from that bold, uncompromising Dane. So you know what you’re letting yourself in for, don’t you?

Stephen McNeice

18 (See IFCO for details)
130  mins

Nymph()maniac Vol I & II are released on 28th February 2014

Nymph()maniac – Official Website

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