Director: Lars Von Trier; Writer: Lars Von Trier; Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Udo Kier, Connie Nielsen; Running time: 241 minutes; Certification: 18
It’s easy for me to say that Lars Von Trier’s stunning Melancholia, his last film before delving into the underworld of sex addiction, is one of my favourite films ever made. Seeing that on the big screen was one of the few occasions where I’ve been genuinely speechless afterwords. It affected me profoundly for a number of reasons – not least the haunting final shot – and I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about it since. With this in mind going into Nymphomaniac – a film with a decidedly different subject matter from melancholy and celestial objects drifting through space – I was both excited and nervous. Excited by the prospect of potentially witnessing another masterpiece in cinema; nervous from the four-hour running time and the – given said subject matter – renowned uncompromising nature of its director.
And uncompromising is, indeed, the word. Clearly there can be comparisons made to films like Thanks For Sharing and Don Jon; two recent films which study sex addiction to various degrees, which seems to be the “thing” right now, and one could be forgiven for thinking Nymphomaniac has arrived because of that trend. But Von Trier really isn’t a man to care about current trends. This is the film he wanted to make, regardless of what anyone else has done, and those two films, interesting though they are in their own way, pale in comparison to the depths Von Trier has plunged to study his subject. It is called Nymphomaniac after all… If you’re going to make that film, this is probably the way to do it. I can’t imagine many other directors willing or even capable of doing what Von Trier has done.
It goes without saying that this is probably the most sexually explicit film ever made, to the point that certain scenes are basically just porn. The credits make it very clear that none of the actors actually had “penetrative sex”, but it sure fooled me. The camera literally gets everywhere, right in between legs and catching every angle of a thrust; nothing is left to the imagination, and it looks for all the world like Shia LaBeouf really is doing the nasty. In that regard, it’s hats off to the VFX department. Again this is sort what you have to expect from Von Trier, but there does reach a point where it feels like it’s being explicit just for the sake of it. Admittedly what could be from the fatigue of being with the film for so long, several sequences in volume 2 particularly decide to show genitals when it really doesn’t seem necessary. Importantly, though, it’s never attractive or arousing. It’s a film about sex but doesn’t glorify it in any way. The very word nymphomaniac has negative connotations; it’s addiction, not pleasure, and in the words of the brilliant Stellan Skarsgård, “It’s not a film you jerk off to.”
The story takes structure as a series of flashbacks as Joe (Gainsbourg), found beaten and bloodied in an alley by Seligan (Skarsgård), recites her troubled life to him. The set-up itself is a little contrived, but over the course of nearly four hours the angle of the narrative becomes clear as we see eight chapters of Joe’s life intercepted by conversations between her and Seligan – a bibliophile and hermit who lives his life in books, never really experiencing anything – in his home. While there’s something actually quite poetic in the way the narrative unfolds and how Seligan spouts off his intellectual anecdotes and comparisons between his life in books and Joe’s real life (fly fishing is just like trolling a train trying to have sex with as many people as possible), there reaches a point where the symbolism is painted in too broad of strokes.
While the character posters would have you believe there are a host of huge names who get down and dirty, most of them actually appear very briefly. Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Connie Nielsen and Udo Kier (him in particular) appear for no more than one scene each, and certainly don’t come close to getting their kit off. The rest of the principle cast is really good – even LaBeouf, whom I used to vouch for but has increasingly irritated me with his “I’m not famous anymore” nonsense. What he’s doing with his accent, however, I’ll never know. Is it English? Is it Kiwi? Is it American? We don’t know, and I don’t think he does either.
With the story cutting through the life of Joe, there are inevitably a few different actresses who portray her at different ages. Stacy Martin takes the main role in volume 1, and does a fine job. Not only is she a good actress who quite admirably yields herself to the sexual nature of the role, but we can actually believe she’s a young Charlotte Gainsbourg. The problem arises when in volume 2 she suddenly becomes Gainsbourg while LaBeouf remains LaBeouf. It requires, shall we say, a suspension of disbelief. Considering how candid the rest of the film is, it’s strange that this transition would be handled so unrealistically.
Nymphomaniac is the passionate work of an extremely uncompromising director. On one side of the coin it’s a film that takes a potentially controversial subject and doesn’t shy away from exploring every recess in a funny, poetic and intelligent way. It bends the preconceived notions of what cinema is allowed to be and sticks to its guns right to the end. On the other it’s an overly-explicit exploitation of female lust and voyeurism that, with a four-hour running time, boarders on exhausting. A shower will be needed when you get home.