– Summary –
Director : Lars von Trier
Year Of Release : 2013
Principal Cast : Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Mia Goth, Sophie Kennedy, Connie Nielsen.
Approx Running Time : 117 Minutes
Synopsis: A woman’s erotic journey from birth to old age is recounted to a man in his apartment, after finding the woman beaten in an alleyway.
What we think : Lars von Trier’s sex-odyssey redefines artistry on film, a masterclass in style, theme and story – it’s confronting in its depiction of sexuality, and no doubt will have many conservative buckaws running for the censorship lawbook, but as a work of magnificently filmed, wonderfully depicted fiction, I’m in little doubt that Volume 1 of Nymphomaniac is a triumph.
Editor’s Note – This review is based off the original theatrical cut of Nymphomaniac Volume 1.
Every man’s fantasy?
Lars von Trier is, if nothing else, a hugely divisive director. Divisive not only for his films, as for his actions away from the camera – famously at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, declaring understanding of Hitler, being a Nazi, and other somewhat controversial comments, caused a significant uproar at the time (he was there to promote his film Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst, who looked positively dumbfounded whilst sitting next to him as he made these remarks) – yet for all his dogmatic style and eccentricity, his films often speak for themselves. Nymphomaniac, a film project which has been divided into two “volumes”, much like Tarantino’s Kill Bill, is loosely considered the conclusion to von Trier’s “Depression” Trilogy, following Antichrist and Melancholia, both of which had dealt with grief and depression (an affliction from which the director also suffers); its very title might give one pause as to what you might see when watching it, and if Antichrist is anything to go by, von Trier isn’t afraid of showing some rather graphic and confronting imagery to make his artistic point. Nymphomaniac does feature some rather graphic depictions of sexual behavior, throughout its two-volume, four-plus hour runtime, and I guess this will make people swerve away from it regardless of intent or artistic merit, so there’s no changing some people’s minds. For the rest of us, those with a more liberal bent, who does von Trier’s latest work of fiction stack up to his previous output – is it as controversial as ever, is it simply a work of artistic porn, or does it have merit and value regardless of sexual content?
After discovering an injured woman lying in a rain-soaked alleyway, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) asks her to recount the events leading to her being there. The woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), begins to tell her story, of her sexual awakening as a young girl (portrayed by Stacy Martin), to losing her virginity to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), to her father’s (Christian Slater) death-throes and mothers (Connie Neilsen) lack of care, to a constant stream of nameless men all using her, and she them, for sex.
Nymphomaniac Volume 1 isn’t the film I thought it would be; it’s better. Initial trailers provided an air of mystery and salacious perversion of sorts, prompting (no doubt) many a teenage boy to set an alarm for the moment this film was to be released. The promise of a sex-crazed woman screwing her way though a film would be enough to make any lusty adult pause and start salivating; yet, given this is a von Trier film, fans will know not to expect whatever the title (as sexualised as it is) might elicit, to be the end product of the film. Nymphomaniac is the first film I’ve seen that at least tries to examine the underlying sexual problems of legitimate nymphomania. While it certainly skirts controversy with its sex scenes, of which there are plenty, to be honest these moments start to become simply another part of the story, meshing in well with the subtext and narrative von Trier weaves into his movie.
While I think the premise itself – an injured woman is found by an older man and taken back to his apartment, where she regales him with stories of her enormous sexual appetite – sounds like the plot to a porn film, von Trier plays it in all seriousness. I admit, I felt the concept of a woman recounting to a man her sex life somewhat…. unbelievable, but as the film progressed I came to accept it, especially since both Gainsbourgh and Skarsgard are given dry, clinical dialogue to wade through. If you can accept that this scenario – as unlikely as it might be – could occur, then the film will reach places you never thought film could. Sorrow, grief, feminism (and, whatever it is they call the opposite of feminism), arousal, death and gratification are all on display here, a labyrinthine interweaving of ideas and characters through a single person’s life that builds and builds into its heartbreaking “cliffhanger” ending; Volume 1 of Nymphomaniac is an incomplete ballad, a half-finished sob-story of pain and loss, and yet even in light of its stylish veneer and structured, lyrical “chapter” storytelling, it all works magnificently.
Let’s be honest, though: a fair proportion of the audience for this film are going to be horny boys who dream of titillation at the hands of a film labeled after one of man’s greatest fantasies, a woman who just wants to f@ck. Hell, even I’ll admit that at several stages of my not-in-a-relationship lives, I’ve dreamed of finding a woman who just wants a physical relationship and that’s it, and wants it constantly. Hell, entire websites exist that are devoted to the concept! The fact that a nymphomaniac is traditionally portrayed in Western culture as female (when in fact it could just as easily be used to describe a man who wants constant sex…. although what man doesn’t, or at least wouldn’t if he could?) notwithstanding, most men have held the term “nympho” up as some unattainable, mythical creature who, unless you dwell in the porn industry, cannot possibly exist. To say Nymphomaniac panders to the lower porn-loving addict is plain wrong, for this film is replete with ideas and concepts so far stretching the bounds of not only good taste, but human sexuality, that it most assuredly is a work of art.
Like most controversial artworks, however, Nymphomaniac requires a certain mindset before entering. The film’s sex scenes, filmed almost entirely hand-held and verite style, aren’t really that sexy, in terms of arousal for the viewer. They’re titillating in only the most minor, curiosity-fuelled manner; they’re mostly matter-of-fact, an aesthetic derived from the point that these scenes are a retelling of events by Joe to Seligman, and probably lack the “gory” detail of most mainstream pornography. Joe’s initial encounter with Jerome, in which she asks him to take her virginity, feels flavourless and numbing, as the movie’s first true “sex scene”, and should be an indication of the inherent disassociation between Joe, and the sex she engages in, on any kind of emotional level. Von Trier perfectly captures her passionless live, a life lived purely to service her base desires for sex, yet counter-intuitively driving a wedge between not only her own family, but also other families of the men she sleeps with. Case in point – one “client” of hers, arrives with bags packed having left his wife, only to suddenly find said wife (Uma Thurman, in a cataclysmic portrayal of restrained fury and utter devastation) land soon after on the doorstep, three young children in tow. The confrontation, it must be said, is painful and raw; when sex is involved, emotion always runs high.
Sex aside (which is hard to do, considering just how much there is in Volume 1), the film’s primary focus is on Joe’s recounting of her past to Seligman, and both Skarsgard (looking confused and insecure) and Gainsbourgh (looking physically fragile yet strong of will) are superb, offering nuance and contrast to their characters. Portraying Joe as a younger version, Stacy Martin is a standout, her façade and stoic demeanour tested throughout (especially towards the end, when facing the death of her father (a terrific Christian Slater) and the realization of her emotional vacuum after a tryst with Jerome. Martin’s performance is where this film reaches the level of possible masterpiece; frankly, if this is her debut, it’s on a par with Adele Exarchopolous’ performance in Blue Is The Warmest Color, a film with which Nymphomaniac shares a lot of similarities in terms of its portrayal of sexual awareness, but also tonally, and occasionally, visually. The now reviled Shia LaBeouf (who courted controversy during Nymphomaniac’s release after finding himself at the center of a plagiarism scandal) is relatively low key here too, providing an aurally perplexing (seriously, what is that accent he’s using?), yet natural performance as one of Joe’s more memorable “relationships”.
Von Trier is one of the most underrated visual artists of our age – if you’ve never seen Antichrist or Melancholia, for example, both of those films (regardless of their content) look stunning, and while Nymphomaniac often struggles with the same level of acute focus and raw beauty, it is a fascinating experiment in style and suggestion, if not outright contemplative superiority. The film maintains a lyrical, almost fantastical quality throughout, with von Trier using every trick he can to elicit an emotion, a feeling, a response from the viewer – Joe’s father’s death, for example, is played out in an extended sequence in monochrome, while the “present” sequences between Skarsgard and Gainsborough are staged with a complete restriction of camera extravagance, and the “flashback” sequences are all largely hand-held, or at least a lot more visually unbalanced. I’m sure repeat viewings will no doubt unwrap more elements I missed the first time round. Suffice to say, von Trier has delivered yet another visually sumptuous and magnetic screen opus that, while not as brilliantly hued as Melancholia, or rigidly ultra-focused as Antichrist, remains stamped with his definitive auteur style.
Nymphomaniac Volume 1 sets the stage for what promises to be an emotionally wrought, personality defining conclusion; with its eclectic cast all providing solid performances, backed up by von Trier’s superb camerawork and artistic style, and a cliffhanger that is heartbreaking in its unfiltered raw devastation, I suspect that the grand opus of both Volumes together will be nothing short of sensational. Esoteric, confounding, confronting and beautiful in alternate increments, Nymphomaniac Volume 1 is terrific, potent filmmaking.