** (2 stars)
wd – Lars von Trier
ph – Manuel Alberto Claro
pd – Simone Grau
ed – Morten Højbjerg (Vol. I), Molly Marlene Stensgaard (Vol. II)
cos – Manon Rasmussen
p – Louise Vesth, Marie Cecilie Gade, Peter Aalbæk Jensen
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, James Northcote, Hugo Speer, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth, Michaël Pas, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier
There is a moment in Nymphomaniac (Vol. II to be precise) where director Lars von Trier has his titular heroine Joe, in an outstanding illustration of neglect, leave her sitter-less son alone at home at 1:00am so she can go satisfy her sexual hunger. Her son navigates his way out of his cot and climbs atop the edge of Joe’s apartment balcony, all the while Lascia ch'io pianga by Handel plays on the soundtrack. This moment directly insinuates the opening of Lars von Trier’s previous film Antichrist (2009). This moment also certifies two things: A) That Lars von Trier is, unless all my acumen fails me, hilarious and B) that he, more than any other filmmaker, will do everything in his ability and aptitude to confront, disaffect and stroke his audience, including being, for all intents and purposes, hilarious.
Make no mistake, Nymphomaniac is a comedy. In fact, Nymphomaniac is one long, 4-hour joke with a punchline as funny as anything Mr von Trier could have concocted. The film begins with Joe (played by Stacey Martin as a girl and by Charlotte Gainsbourg as a woman) being taken in by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an intellectual bachelor who finds her beaten-up in an alleyway. Over the course of the night she relates to him her entire sexual history and what led her to the point of which he found her. For this reason, although the film is being theatrically released in two volumes, this review will attune with my belief that it should be viewed as one 4-hour whole, and that reviewing two halves of the movie seems like a fruitless exercise with no discernable benefit.
Typical of Mr von Trier, Joe’s story is broken-up into 8 chapters – a Fibonacci number – beginning with her discovery of the capabilities of her vagina and her realization that love is counterfeit. By the time she reaches her late-teens she has routine sexual encounters with a minimum of 8 people a night. The most crucial of these partners is Jerome (Shia Labeouf, sporting an accent that was untraceable for this reviewer) who would later become the father of the aforementioned son. Like a lot of Mr von Trier’s films, it is unspecific about when and where it is set. Let’s say, Europe-land.
Aside from Joe and Jerome, each chapter contains, for the most part, a fresh set of characters. The best of these is chapter 3, “Mrs H”, in which Joe plays the part of a home-wrecker and spends the night dealing with the scorned wife (played by a ferocious and riotous Uma Thurman). The most tedious chapter is the one straight after, “Delirium”, which is in black and white and deals with Joe’s relationship with her sick father (Christian Slater). Riotous really is the description for most of what goes on in Nymphomaniac. There is a scene in a restaurant where Jerome bets Joe she can’t fit 5 spoons into her vagina. Well, she does, much to the confusion of their waiter (von Trier regular Udo Kier).
This film is at its most illuminating, however, during the scenes between Ms Gainsbourg and Mr Skarsgård. These a more that mere frames. It is here that Mr von Trier immortalizes what can acutely be detected through his entire oeuvre: the gross disharmony of what we consider intellectually moral with what is primal and natural. Seligman is a man of digression and each story point Joe gives leads to a philosophical discussion in the hope of dissection. These include Fibonacci numbers, fly-fishing, James Bond, Bach, cake forks, the complexity of pedophilia and more.
But here comes the paradox: when the final moments of the film are revealed to us, it becomes apparent that these conversations have been a set-up to one long dirty joke by Mr von Trier and it is both hilarious and depressing at the same time.
Nymphomaniac is the third film in Mr von Trier “Depression Trilogy”, after Anticrhist (2009) and Melancholia (2011), and is the best of the three because it’s the most unruly. Despite this, I still believe that the film takes too many unnecessary longueurs. I felt this about the “Delirium” chapter as well as chapter 6 “The Eastern and the Western Church (The Silent Duck)” in which Joe habitually visits a mysterious man whom she seeks to beat her up (Jamie Bell). But again, Mr von Trier seems aware of this. During one of Seligman’s pontifications, Joe intrudes and says, “I think this has been one of your weakest digressions”.
Cinematically, Nymphomaniac is also one of Mr von Trier’s least interesting ventures, relying on a great deal of random cutaways and dealing with – Ms Thurman aside – some surprisingly fundamental performances from its vast cast. But it is the philosophy of what is onscreen that is so fascinating here. Like Bunuel or Herzog, Mr von Trier challenges and tickles with equal quota.