Reviewed by GREG KING
Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia Le Beouf, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Stacy Martin, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe.
Danish auteur Lars Von Trier is one of contemporary cinema’s enfants terrible, who has established a reputation for controversy through his confronting and deliberately provocative films. The sexually explicit and graphic Nymphomaniac will certainly attract its share of controversy as well with its study of a woman who is a sew addict. There have been a number of films dealing with sex addiction, from The Story Of O through to Diary Of A sex Addict and more recently Shame and Thanks For Sharing, but Von Trier shapes the film in his own unique and idiosyncratic fashion.
The film begins with a blank screen (no, it is not a technical error) with some ambient sounds in the background, the significance of which becomes clear later on. This is similar to the technique Kubrick used with films like Spartacus, although there the blank screen was accompanied by an overture.
Mild mannered and erudite bachelor Seligman (played by Von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard) is walking home from the market one evening when he sees a woman lying bloodied and beaten in an alleyway. He takes her home, cleans her up, feeds her tea and soup, and listens as she relates her life story. Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells of discovering her sexuality at a very young age, and then delights in telling of her teenage exploits in seducing men. She talks at length of her relationship with Jerome (Shia La Beouf), the young man who took her virginity and later had a relationship with her. We also learn of her tender relationship with her father (Christian Slater) a compassionate and sympathetic doctor until his death in hospital.
Nymphomaniac explores Joe’s journey of self discovery, and Von Trier tries to give us some insights into her flawed nature. In a series of flashback sequences we see the young Joe (played by newcomer Stacy Martin, a former model making her screen debut) experiment with her sexuality and her power over men. But sex also seems to be something of an emotional outlet for Joe, a way of dealing with stress.
But Seligman constantly interrupts the narrative to engage Joe in some intellectual discussions about a wide ranging number of subjects, including fly fishing, philosophy, morality, Fibonacci numbers, music and literature. Von Trier also playfully illustrates these concepts with some writing and algebraic drawings on the screen.
Von Trier sets out to explore some of the darker side of human nature here. There are some graphic, brief explicit sex scenes, featuring some S&M and B&D. There are some scenes of sexual penetration (although we are assured that body doubles were used for these sequences) and plenty of genitalia on display, but somehow this film about sex is done with such a cold and clinical eye that it is unsexy, and the raincoat brigade looking for some cheap fun will be disappointed. The film is heavily dialogue driven for much of its length. And some of the dialogue is unintentionally pretentious and elicited some laughs from the audience.
The film explores themes of despair, loneliness, the search for a connection in a soulless world, relationships and, of course, sex. While there is a voyeuristic element to Nymphomaniac, the film is not quite as shocking nor as salacious as the work of Catherine Breillat, in particular her Romance, which attracted the ire of the local censors.
Nymphomaniac runs for a massive five hours, but what we are seeing in cinemas is an edited, four hour version served up in two parts, called Volume I and Volume II. The two parts are screened with a ten minute intermission to allow audiences to stretch their legs, get a drink or adjust their clothing. This version has been edited down from the more explicit five hour cut with Von Trier’s approval, but without his involvement. Volume II seems darker than Volume I as it journeys into more disturbing territory as it heads towards a rather bleak and unexpected conclusion.
The film has been shot by Manuel Albert Clara, who also did the cinematography for Melancholia, and here he has bathed the interiors with warm hues as a contrast to the often cold and clinical nature of the material.
Von Trier has often explored the female psyche with unflinching honesty and candour, and he has often created strong, fully rounded, highly sexual and intelligent female characters. But he also likes to put his actresses through a wringer, both physically and emotionally. Nymphomaniac marks the third time he has collaborated with Gainsbourg (after Antichrist and Melancholia). This is the third film in his so-called depression trilogy, and although it goes into some dark and disturbing territory, there is also a sense of mischief and playfulness in Von Trier’s handling of the material. Joe’s story is broken up into distinct chapters, which gives the material an episodic feel at times, but there are many elements that flow throughout the story, providing a strong continuity. There is one brief scene here that seems to imitate the shocking opening of Antichrist, but Von Trier is a little too canny to merely copy himself. He does this for effect rather than to merely reflect on his own cleverness.
Few of the characters here are actually given names, but are referred to by initials, like F, G, H, K, L, and even Mrs H, etc. Von Trier has been able to attract a strong cast to flesh out some of the characters, and it is clear that many were keen to work with him that they even appear in small roles.
Anchoring the film is a brave and revealing and emotionally demanding performance from Gainsbourg, who captures Joe’s sense of self-loathing. There is some great chemistry between Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, which heightens the dichotomy between their characters.
Connie Nielsen is cold in a small role as Joe’s distant mother. Willem Dafoe could have phoned in his performance here as a loan shark who hires Joe. Cast against type Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliott and Tintin fame) plays a sado-masochist instructor who has strict rules of conduct and no safe word. Uma Thurman is terrific as Mrs H, a vindictive and cuckolded woman whose husband is one of Joe’s many lovers. Her performance seems to draw upon her own personal experiences such is its raw emotional power. And newcomer Martin delivers a brave and provocative and very revealing performance, and she brings an almost innocent quality to her role as the sexually voracious young Joe.
Von Trier and fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, etc) created the Dogma movement in the mid 90s, which laid down some elemental rules for stripped back filmmaking. But here he has thrown away the rule book, and Nymphomaniac is all the better for it. Some people may be offended by the content of Nymphomaniac, rather than consider its penetrating psychological insights, which means they will miss the point of it all.