When it was announced soon after the release of Melancholia that Lars Von Trier’s next film would be entitled Nymphomaniac, I probably let out an audible sigh. A weary sigh. Now, let me explain myself a little bit. I’m a fan of Von Trier’s work – that which I’ve seen – and was automatically going to be present for whatever his next offering turned out to be, but it seems often as though there are two Von Triers; the thoughtful, intelligent, emotionally sophisticated Von Trier, and the childish, attention-seeking one, out to provoke and push buttons for the sheer pleasure of being the provocateur.
After the taboo content of Antichrist and the comments about Nazism at Cannes surrounding Melancholia (which the man himself has admitted to making on purpose as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for the film’s failure to pick up awards), the prospect of a film called Nymphomaniac from Lars Von Trier, featuring real sex and a sprawling running time sent up warning flags, first and foremost. Which version of the man would we be dealing with here? The artist or the prankster? And how would that effect the film? It sounded, simply, like provocation for its own sake.
Well now here it is. Or, more accurately, here they are, as Nymphomaniac has been edited down from the writer/director’s initial five and a half hour cut and then split almost exactly in half. Two volumes, each more or less two hours in length. It’s a lot of material to wade through, so forgive me if I’ve rambled enough already.
The film presents us with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who is found beaten seemingly unconscious in a snowy alleyway by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). He takes her back to his dingy little apartment where she recounts events from her life to place her present state in context. Thus we are offered up eight chapters detailing everything from her sexual awakening through to the discovery of her addiction and on into more dangerous territory.
Joe tells her story from a place of rueful self-loathing, casting herself as a lost soul who has callously ruined countless lives for the sake of her own gratification. Seligman, a bookish, asexual man (Skarsgard at his very best) provides an optimistic counterpoint to Joe’s version of herself, revealing through joyfully creative associations (everything from music to fly-fishing) an alternative perspective. Where Joe is quick to demonise herself, Seligman looks for the human being. These framing conversations are a delight, as Von Trier essentially has an argument with himself; it’s a tirelessly entertaining debate between yin and yang, touching not just on nymphomania, but on religion, political correctness and more. There’s even some eyebrow-raising trivia about Mars.
For much of Vol. I and some of Vol. II, young Joe is portrayed in flashback by newcomer Stacy Martin. Even if significant sections of the sexually explicit scenes were augmented with CGI or body doubles, Martin’s work here is still impressively fearless, and to her credit she holds her own when compared to the already proven Gainsbourg. Her youth and precocious vitality are mirrored in the energy felt throughout Vol. I especially. Nymphomaniac‘s most welcome surprise is how much fun it is.
I’m about to draw an awkward comparison here, but hear me out. Nymphomaniac‘s closest cinematic cousin seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Stay with me on this. Not just because it’s one picture split into two, and nor for the appearance of Uma Thurman (who, by the way, is spectacular here). Much like Tarantino’s genre-hopping, bloody revenge flick, Nymphomaniac sees its director joyously playing with as many tricks and techniques as he can find in his toolbox.
He’s always been a gifted storyteller, but Von Trier is positively on fire here, utilising everything from split screen, stock footage, black and white, different film stocks and aspect ratios, not to mention a recurring motif of layering text and/or diagrams over his images. Nymphomaniac Vol. I almost feels like a Von Trier greatest hits package. Much like Kill Bill Vol. I, it might not be the director’s best work, but it sure as hell seems like he’s having the most fun of his career. That sense of joy de vivre is infectious, and it helps the film to genuinely soar.
The amount of comedy here is as surprising as it is wholly welcome. There are knowing winks everywhere, not least in the casting of Shia LaBeouf as the cloddish Jerome, whom Joe is repeatedly drawn back to despite his klutzy foolishness. LaBeouf manages to just about hold his own, despite adopting a British accent that takes him around the houses into Dick Van Dyke territory on more than one occasion. It only adds to the character’s comedic squareness. And as previously suggested, Vol. I is stolen by a firecracker appearance from Uma Thurman as a wronged wife. Her eponymous chapter ‘Mrs H’ morphs the movie into a cringe-comedy vehicle to rival Curb Your Enthusiasm at it’s most masochistic.
Like Kill Bill however, things taken a turn in the second half. Tarantino offered up a far-less lovable Vol. II; wordier, meaner, less flamboyant. So it goes with Von Trier as Joe’s story grows darker and more and more problematic. Only three chapters remain for Vol. II, so the film slows down, presses its focus into more painful territory and lingers there. Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliot fame) is coolly effective in a chapter on Joe’s experiments with ‘the dangerous men’ – a brutal essay on the dynamics of a rather extreme S&M relationship that is thrilling for its complexity rather than for any open titillation.
Vol. II may prove uneasy viewing for some, but it is still undeniably riveting, even if the tone of the film has taken a noticeable shift. Still, the playfulness remains, though muted by comparison. The film’s strangest moment comes when Von Trier openly threatens to rehash an entire sequence from Antichrist wholesale, even down to the music. It’s a wicked little fake out. Unfortunately, just like Tarantino, Von Trier then drops the ball entirely when bringing proceedings to a close. The lengthy final chapter, ‘The Gun’ sees Nymphomaniac abruptly morph into a part-baked crime thriller.
It’s an unwelcome turn following the engaging and insightful character work that’s led us so far already, and feels like the moves of a much lesser film. Suddenly Von Trier the prankster is back in command of the picture, and quality takes a horrifying nosedive, right up until the film’s abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion, where a complete swerve in character masquerades as a twist ending. It’s a jarring final note. The two Von Triers have wrestled throughout the film, maintaining an admirable balance. Lamentably it is the trickster, the provocateur who wins out. It’s a genuine shame and nearly the film’s undoing.
Except there’s just so much to admire here. When Nymphomaniac is good, it stands shoulder to shoulder with Von Trier’s very best. And overall the good makes the bad worthwhile (unlike Antichrist which sadly tipped the other way). In Nymphomaniac everything has its mirror opposite; Joe vs Steligman, Von Trier vs Von Trier, the playful, imaginative highs vs the awkward bum notes. They all wrestle courageously, energising what will stand for better or worse as one of the year’s essential cinematic experiences.