28th Feb2014

‘Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia Labeouf, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Uma Thurman, Mia Goth | Written and directed by Lars von Trier


How long was the last film you went to see? How long do you think you were in the cinema, ticket-buying, ad-consuming and actual movie-watching all accounted for? Probably somewhere between 2 and 3 hours would be a good guess (unless you’ve just been to The Wolf of Wall Street, which is still a maximum of, what, four hours?). Well, last Saturday I took my seat in the excellent City Screen Picturehouse in York in feverish anticipation of Lars von Trier’s latest crowd-baiter, Nymphomaniac, and I didn’t leave for five hours.

As a good friend of mine recently said: if nothing else, von Trier is determined to make an event of his work.

Thankfully enough for my eyeballs and arse, however, there was plenty else to sink my teeth into. In short, Nymphomaniac is a whistlestop tour of human sexuality: causes, effects, desires, fears, relationships, one-night stands and positions are all discovered and explored by the audience through a mixture of flashbacks and ham-fisted discussions of morality between Stellan Skårsgard and Charlotte Gainsbourg. There’s far too much to the film to really give it its fair due in anything other than an essay, but I’ll do my best to offer up my estimation of the film as a whole.

We may as well start at the beginning; or rather the end, as we first meet Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe beaten, bloodied and bruised in a dank alleyway toward the last act of her story, chronologically speaking. Taken in by local good Samaritan Selligman (Stellan Skarsgard) and cleaned up – only slightly, mind, everything and everyone in a von Trier production having to be at least a little dirty – Joe laments her weaknesses as a human being and decides to tell her optimistic but sheltered saviour her whole life story in the hopes that he’ll agree with her own judgement that she’s a “bad human being”.

And that story, as you may have gathered, contains a fair amount of intercourse. Volume I shows us Joe’s formative years (played by various child actors and, from age 14 up, newcomer Stacy Martin) as a mixture of sexual discoveries and bonding moments between the lead and her father (Christian Slater). Joe’s initial sexual experiences are startlingly early but narrated by Gainsbourg with a nonchalance that becomes familiar throughout her story. For the rest of Volume I we hear and see plenty of things that would be seen as shocking or outrageous in any conventional life, yet Joe’s captive audience only chimes in to make allegorical connections between her story and any number of sexless topics from fly fishing to religious iconography.

The reason for Selligman’s digressive mind and desire to help Joe soon becomes apparent and offers a stark contrast to the leads that rather transparently allows the director to have as many broad-ranging discussions about morality and relationships as he desires. While occasionally entertaining, Selligman’s habit to wax expository about the hidden meanings of Joe’s experiences (having a spontaneous orgasm and seeing a vision of the whore of Babylon, for example) becomes more irritating the more it detracts from her much more interesting life story. Perhaps Lars is trying to make us realise our own obsession with sex by placing obstacles between us and the on-screen copulation, or maybe he just wants us to know how smart he is. Either way, Joe is just as bemused by his wittering as we are and forcibly puts him back on track several times.

Told as a series of eight chapters from Joe’s life over four hours, it’s easy to imagine Nymphomaniac as a set of short stories or even a limited TV series, and the level of detachment I felt from Joe (both as Martin and Gainsbourg, who play her somewhere between numb and robotic except mid-coitus) gave me an impression that I could have watched the same production with a different character as the lead and had more or less the same experience. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, more an observation that the film isn’t about Joe’s evolution as a character so much as a degradation and exploration of how human sexuality is perceived and experienced. The main through lines of the film – aside from Joe herself – are her relationships with her father and Jerome (Shia Labeouf), the only man Joe ever comes close to truly loving, despite being something of an idiotic douchebag and the owner of an accent that’s more Kiwi than its intended Cockney.

The scenes with Jerome are the worst, largely due to Labeouf’s distracting accent and a lack of belief I had in their relationship. I connected with the self-contained vignettes much more as they had more modest aims in my mind – simply representing one facet of sexuality or relationships – and rarely outstayed their welcome (rather an astonishing feat for a four-hour movie). Uma Thurman’s appearance as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s earlier conquests who shows up at her door with their three children to admit defeat is a bittersweet experience; the broad comedy of the scene (“May we see the whoring bed?”) is undercut by the sad surrender of Thurman’s Mrs. H and the irony that Joe doesn’t love or even like her husband all that much anyway.

Jamie Bell’s turn as K, a reclusive sadist who teaches Joe the pleasure of pain while she should be helping to raise her and Jerome’s child, is the most powerful and electrifying role in Nymphomaniac and the one that had me most invested in what was happening on-screen. The power Bell exudes with small, restrained movements and his calm orders to and disfigurement of Joe are extremely unsettling and suggested a disturbing depth to his character (I imagined him going back to a loving wife and children after a heady evening of S&M, his pathological tendencies curbed for another day) not present in the rest of the cast. But then, as Skarsgard said in the post-film Q&A, many of the characters in Lars von Trier’s films are not intended to be such – more like ideas of people, so as to get across a point.

And speaking of the point: oddly (or perhaps appropriately) enough for a film concerning itself chiefly with sex, there’s little that’s erotic or arousing about the carnal sounds and images we’re presented with. Though that’s clearly an incredibly subjective judgement, it’s not just me: the two people I attended the film with both had similar feelings of interest rather than excitement. The exploration of bodies and sensations really came second to that of how low Joe could be sent and still want to go on  with her life, and after a point we’re left wondering whether she’ll ever be capable of anything approximating happiness again. Certainly, after all the suffering Joe goes through toward the end of the film – both emotionally and psychologically – that possibility seems dimmer and dimmer with each passing moment, which is nothing new for von Trier. That concern becomes less important the closer we come to the end, as the true conclusion to all of the pain and pleasure Joe’s experienced seems to be that she – along with her beloved curse, her lifelong “affliction” – is a force of nature, and nothing is going to stop her, for good or for ill.

Nymphomaniac is on limited release from today.


Comments are closed.