Drama Film Review

Scandalously Salacious Film Review: Nymphomaniac (Vol. I & II)

March 21, 2014Ben MK

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Great xxx-pectations

By Ben Mk

Watching Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, it's impossible not to be reminded of another film in a similar vein — Steve McQueen's Shame. But while both films may broach the same taboo subject matter — that of sexual addiction — their approaches differ wildly. If McQueen's film can be considered an essay on the topic, then von Trier's sprawling four-hour, two-part opus (culled from the writer/director's five-hour-plus original cut) is surely a master's thesis, rife with religious and literary digressions, mathematical tangents and — above all else — controversy.

Von Trier begins his film with an opening sequence that heralds the tone of things to come — for this is a story told not just with shocking, raw honesty, but also with surprising tenderness. After keeping the audience suspended in complete darkness for what seems like an eternity, he opens on a dark and dingy alley, in the middle of God-knows-where. It's wintertime, and the calmness of snowflakes floating softly to the ground is abruptly shattered by the thrashing of heavy metal music and a view of a body lying motionless on the cold asphalt.

The bruised and bloodied figure? None other than Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the film's titular anti-heroine. And after being found by a passerby named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) and brought to his home to recuperate, she begins to tell her seedy story over a cup of hot tea. Spurred by Seligman's adamant claim that he's "never met a bad human being", Joe sets out to prove him wrong by (literally) recounting the sorted chapters of her life (keeping with von Trier's preferred method of structuring his narratives). With headings colorfully drawn from the various objects in Seligman's apartment — a fishing fly, religious iconography, even a coffee stain on the wall — each successive chapter inches closer to an explanation of how she ended up unconscious in the alley.

Volume I unfolds over the course of five chapters — with deliberately mysterious headings like The Compleat Angler, Jerôme, Mrs. H, Delirium and The Little Organ School. For this first (and generally more playful) half of the film, Gainsbourg is relegated to the role of bedridden narrator, leaving it to newcomer Stacy Martin to take the audience through the experiences of much of Joe's early life — as a fifteen-year-old experiencing her awkward first sexual encounter, with a moped-owning miscreant named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf); a seventeen-year-old "rebelling against love" by engaging in a friendly bet with her best friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), over who can seduce the most strangers during a single train ride; and a twenty-something-year-old woman with an insatiable carnal appetite (whose methodical system for responding to her lovers' numerous advances backfires one evening, leading to an extremely uncomfortable encounter with a bitter wife, played by Uma Thurman). But it's not until the film's fourth chapter (told in avant-garde black and white) that the story veers into more somber and bizarre territory, with a death that alters Joe's whole outlook on sex. As a result, she comes to treat fornication as a substitute for emotion; but ironically, vigorous overstimulation eventually causes her to lose all sensation in her most vital of regions, preventing her from experiencing pleasure altogether.

Volume II's final three chapters — The Eastern and the Western Church (The Silent Duck), The Mirror and The Gun — are substantially darker and more lurid, but still not without moments of tenderness and humor. In this portion of the story, the role of Joe in the film's flashback sequences passes from Martin to Gainsbourg, as Joe recounts the sadistic extremes to which she went in trying to reclaim some sense of sexual satisfaction (in particular, her punishing sessions with a riding whip and a stoic S&M master played by Jamie Bell), as well as a failed foray into group therapy to rid herself of her lustful desires. But ultimately, this latter half of her story is all about her finally accepting — and even taking pride in — who she is. After bouncing between the extremes of torture for pleasure and complete abstinence, the film's final chapter sees Joe finding her calling in the field of debt collection (read: extortion) — where she puts her skills to good use — under the watchful tutelage of L (Willem Dafoe). However, her new line of work also dredges up the past, setting in motion a series of jealousy-fueled events that eventually leads to her fateful meeting with Seligman.

And now for the burning question: Just how risqué is Nymphomaniac? The answer may come as a surprise, but the film isn't as shocking as von Trier might have audiences believe. Contrary to what some might expect, the majority of the films' four-hour combined runtime isn't spent on explicit acts of carnal pleasure. There are fleeting moments of it here and there (and perhaps much more in the original cut), but von Trier spends 95% of the time crafting a compelling and poignant narrative, not an x-rated orgy. That being said, there's still enough true blue sexual content — including acts of self-gratification, deviant sex and a threesome with an unhappy ending — to make the average moviegoer squirm in their seat. But there's one "interesting" sequence worthy of a special mention, and it's one that von Trier has clearly included for its shock value. The best way to describe it is by drawing a comparison to what Brad Pitt's character in Fight Club does in his job as a theater projectionist — splicing a single frame of pornography into a mainstream film, as a joke on the audience. Von Trier effectively replicates the same joke here, only he isn't quite as subtle about it, turning a split-second appearance of a certain facet of the male anatomy into one of the most unsettling montages in film history. Your imagination can figure out the rest.

But perhaps what's most surprising about the film is just how accessible it proves to be (its subject matter and running time notwithstanding) — and bizarrely enough, it may even be von Trier's most accessible (though certainly not his most commercial) film to date. This is really a testament to the sexual ferocity and emotional fragility that Martin brings forth in her sublime performance. Because even though she plays the role of young Joe with a certain degree of emotional indifference, there's also an unquantifiable likeability about her portrayal, making it easy to empathize with her character. It's much different from the energy that Gainsbourg brings to the screen, and it makes Martin's presence sorely missed when she transitions out of the role.

Nevertheless, audiences will find it easy to connect with the story via its many moments of levity, and via the relationships that Joe forms throughout — from her loving relationship with her father (played by Christian Slater) to her rapport with Seligman, which grows over the course of her narrative (but which turns out to be the film's cruelest joke). Otherwise, most of the humor comes from Seligman's amusing anecdotes, comparing aspects of Joe's sex life to more mundane things like fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers. But von Trier also maintains a sense of self-deprecating humor throughout, especially noticeable at times when Joe's storytelling weaves in abstract imagery, which is usually followed by an immediate interjection on Seligman's part (either objecting to its absurdity or expressing bewilderment at its inclusion). Of course, the writer/director hasn't abandoned the art house aesthetic entirely, as the films' chapters are laden with allegorical imagery, philosophical musings and recurrent themes — all perhaps serving a higher purpose as part of his commentary on gender inequality. What it all boils down to is that, despite the usual trappings of a von Trier film, there's a lot to chew on in Joe's story that will resonate with audiences.

The Bottom Line

Ever the provocateur, filmmaker Lars von Trier seems to be at both his creative and controversial peak with Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II. But look beyond the seemingly egregious total running time, taboo subject matter and occasionally graphic sex scene, and what you'll find is arguably one of his most accessible films — full of dark humor, compelling performances and a storyline that truly connects with the audience (both on an intellectual and an emotional plane), even though it can get downright bizarre at times. There's no telling what may lurk in von Trier's original cut of the film, but in its four-hour incarnation, Nymphomaniac is a film that deserves to be experienced, in all its cinematic glory — provided moviegoers can muster the courage to purchase a ticket. [★★★★]

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