By Simon Miraudo
March 24, 2014
Overheard after the screening of Nymphomaniac Vol.1: “It certainly had a lot of… ideas.” No kidding. I can’t believe how some of those ‘ideas’ got past the censors. And did you see the size of that one dude’s ‘idea’? The first entry in Lars von Trier‘s two-part odyssey of strange is indeed jam-packed with psychosexual metaphors and existential malaise, although that’s not what’s being promoted on the posters. (The marketing materials, inventively, show the esteemed cast revealing their most expressive ‘O’ faces). The Danish director, a ceaseless provocateur, has shot some of the most explicit sex scenes this side of French television, even hiring porn stars to seamlessly stand-in for the actors more, erm, penetrative sequences. Nonetheless, an opening title card insists this version is watered down from the auteur’s original vision, which ran almost six hours and was significantly more graphic. What we’re seeing was released with his “permission but without his involvement otherwise.” Yikes. You crazy for this one, Lars!
We first find our hero Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) battered and bloodied in an lonely alley. Clues suggest this is occurring in present day London, but von Trier’s movies don’t really remain tied to any specific time or place. She’s taken in by Seligman (the comforting Stellan Skarsgård), a good Samaritan eager to hear all about how she wound up in such a state. The self-loathing Joe, now in fresh pyjamas and rejuvenated by tea, breaks down for him her entire sexual history, starting at age two, when she first felt those funny, new sensations after discovering her “****.” Bristling already? Dear reader, we are just getting started.
As a young woman, Joe is played by Stacy Martin, a talented young model whom von Trier asks the most of, giving her instant entry to his Tortured Hall of Fame. In ‘The Compleat Angler’, the first chapter of Vol. 1 (there are five in all), teenage Joe stalks the train with a friend competing to accumulate conquests, allowing Seligman to excitedly compare the experience to fly-fishing. (The two of them seem to have an endless supply of banal things to contrast with coitus.) Chapter 2, ‘Jerome’, is all about Joe’s increasing infatuation with her first partner, played by an English-accented Shia LaBeouf. The voice work is…. interesting. He at least gets points for fully committing to the most seemingly-unsimulated sex scenes with Martin. The picture’s highlight comes in Chapter 3, which is built around the intrusion of Uma Thurman‘s spurned, show-stopping, passive-aggressive wife of a husband who wants to run away with Joe, not understanding he’s one of dozens being juggled by her simply as means of dulling her horniness. The woman, Mrs. H, brings her three children along to Joe’s apartment and asks if they can see “the Whoring Bed.” Does that come in a Posturepedic?
The first hour, narrated by Gainsbourg (still wildly compelling despite being constrained to a bed for the entirety of Vol. 1), is simply a cycle of cruel stories the kind an unfeeling sort would relay with relish. I suppose that’s how many would describe von Trier. Maybe he would too. Joe similarly considers herself a sinner. It makes her, in a way, a stand-in for the director; someone who slyly delights in tales of depravity and degradation, but acknowledges the kind of terrible person they might be because of it. Martin, carrying the burden of having to perform all that depravity and degradation, wanders through the chapters with deadened eyes, barely registering pleasure during the sex acts. As Vol. 1 comes to a close, however, we’re given two context-shifting vignettes. A black-and-white fourth chapter concerns the decay of a close family member’s body through illness, and a fifth chapter morphs three simultaneous sequences of fornication until they reach a literal, musical crescendo. Through each, Joe – and Martin – unpeels further and further, and her unquenchable feelings of arousal are revealed to be tangled up with her fear of mortality, those complicated emotions directed towards her one true soul mate, dad (an also-weirdly-English-accented Christian Slater), and a deep sense of longing for sex’s secret ingredient: love. Lars von Trier may have well and truly proven his freaky-deakie credentials over the years, but Nymphomaniac may prove him to be a softie too.
The man who co-founded the reductive Dogme movement has, with his recent efforts, moved away from that stark realism and oddly evolved into a striking visual stylist, whose eye for indelible, standalone images has improved exponentially, and who has smartly recruited cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro once again. Each chapter has its own feel and flourishes. The only constant – besides the extreme close-ups of genitalia, so get ready for that – is the sparseness of the set decoration, with Seligman and Joe’s apartments as dreary and bare as hospital rooms. What few dressings there are to be found in Seligman’s home exist purely to invite direct comparisons to Joe’s nymphomania-induced adventures. Guess Lars isn’t so removed from the man who made Dogville and everything before it.
Whether or not Joe’s thirst for completeness will be sated, I can’t say until witnessing Vol 2. I’m left to judge the half-film before me, which raises a lot of fascinating questions about the right and wrong of wanting sex, the ‘sinful’ nature of being a hormonal human, and the sacrifices and hurt one is willing to cause in the pursuit of orgasm. But then there’s “the Whoring Bed,” all that talk of fly-fishing, as well as LaBeouf’s awful accent (and hiring in general). His sympathy for Joe aside, all signs point to von Trier f***ing with us here. He has a sharp, often misunderstood sense of humour, on celluloid as it is in life. He no doubt took great pleasure in packaging all this tongue-wagging material within a drab, depressing, despairing black comedy. I feel confident in describing Joe as a sort of sex-mad analogue of her creator. That reading works for me. Nonetheless, peering too deep into Lars’ pieces can sometimes be a fool’s errand, ignoring the reality that he just loves to confront us with button-pushing material for the fun of it.
He calls Nymphomaniac the third part of his ‘Depression Trilogy’ following on from Antichrist (starring Gainsbourg as a woman driven insane by a cruel, controlling husband) and Melancholia (featuring Kirsten Dunst as a manic depressive awaiting the apocalypse). In the second-halves of those flicks, our protagonists resigned themselves to their mental illnesses and welcomed total oblivion. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 ends on a bleak note too, and I’m certainly expecting Vol. 2 to be as nihilistic as those last features. Or, perhaps von Trier will surprise us. Though they didn’t exactly find happy endings, the protagonists of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark did retain goodness in the face of overwhelming, oppressive bleakness.
Though Volumes 1 & 2 will screen back-to-back in Australian cinemas, they’ll be released as separate instalments on DVD, download, and the like. Hence, you’re getting two incomplete reviews for one incomplete story about a very incomplete woman. So far, it seems like Nymphomaniac is a last-ditch attempt at saving an ultimately good soul who simply “demanded more of the sunset” and is seeking something that will make a banal life that little bit richer. I feel empathy and even slight kinship with Joe. I acknowledge the director’s desire for provocation, and yet am looking past it and identifying a desire in him to find meaning and pleasure in a world that’s often cruel. Maybe it’s more than just a joke on the audience. Maybe I’m just watching too many Lars von Trier movies.
Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.
Nymphomaniac Vol.1 & Vol.2 will screen back-to-back in Australian cinemas from March 27, 2014.