By R. David
Viewed April 9, 2014
Taken as one piece, Lars Von Trier’s two “Nymphomaniac” films – “Volume 1” and “Volume 2”, which I am reviewing together as its intended whole – is a difficult movie to review. Fitting, I suppose since Von Trier as a director who delights in polarizing audiences. His films are almost always incendiary and controversial. Critically speaking, this is what makes them exciting. You want filmmakers to be bold, unapologetic and challenge genre conventions. However, ideally they will also find ways to engage their audience rather than alienate them, and win-over skeptics rather than be content to simply speak to their cult fan base each time out. Von Trier lacks nothing where gusto is concerned, but he seems either frustratingly unwilling or unable to break his own, now-obvious mold.
“Nymphomaniac” is a perfect example of this dichotomy. On one hand, it’s fascinating. The film is by turns funny and brutal, sympathetic and disturbing. It’s that blending of emotional responses which are at tonal odds that that lends the film a complex and compelling narrative structure. The film is essentially a series of flashbacks recounting the sexual exploits of a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Von Trier’s go-to lead actress). She is found beaten in an alley by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who comes to her rescue. Joe claims it is her insatiable sexual appetite that has led her to this place. She tells Seligman her story, explaining she has been obsessed with sex nearly all of her life. We see her as a curious little girl, a precocious teen, her earliest sexual experiences, including the disappointments and abuse that shape her understanding of what sex is. There isn’t much shared about her upbringing or home life, other than the fact that she loved her father (played by Christian Slater) and resented her brash mother (Connie Nielsen), but her sexual awareness and eventual preoccupation stems from such a young age and seemingly organic place, Von Trier clearly means to make no excuse for her nymphomania. It just simply is. As a teen Joe is played with just the right amount of aloofness by Stacy Martin, who seems to only come truly alive during her sexual encounters. Point taken. It is as a young adult when she first meets the closest thing she ever has to a true love in Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), whom she later marries and has a child with; but her sexual addiction always threatens to derail everything good in her life. We see her lose jobs, ruin marriages, break hearts, attempt treatment; it’s all for naught. Von Trier drives home the point that nymphomania is an addiction or neurological disorder like any other, unable to be easily stifled.
Most of this makes up the first half of “Nymphomaniac” (“Volume 1”). It is in the second half where any levity Von Trier was allowing is stifled and we move on to the true dark side of Joe’s obsession. Like an addict always trying to get higher, she moves on to punishing kink to feed her addiction, and the toll her unquenchable sexual appetite has taken on her personal life leads her to crime, cruelty and murder. It is also in the film’s second half where Von Trier shows his full hand and reveals “Nymphomaniac” to be as much a commentary on sexual politics and gender roles as a singular character study. As Joe recounts her exploits to Seligman, she begins to question if her life would be in such dire straits if she were a man with the same urges (though Von Trier doesn’t exactly portray any of the sex-obsessed man she meets as any happier or healthier).
Saying all this, I realize how ambitious and interesting “Nymphomaniac” sounds. And, indeed, it is both of those things. But it is also obvious, ponderous and – this might go without saying – overlong. As no doubt intended, the film’s sex is almost never sexy, but rather almost always uncomfortable, ranging from merely awkward to downright ugly to terrifying. Anyone watching this film for titillation purposes probably deserves to be shocked and appalled, but Von Trier seems almost perversely eager to disgust. The actors range from shrill and over the top (Uma Thurman as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s conquests), laughably earnest (LaBeouf), or frustratingly opaque (almost everyone else). The movie almost doesn’t feel like it takes place in the real world, or at least not present day. At times I forgot I was watching a contemporary film and assumed I was watching a period piece and would catch myself thinking, “maybe things were different ‘back then’”. The world Joe lives in and the people she interacts with feel similarly inorganic. Nothing about this movie, the locations, or the characters feels the least bit organic or indicative of the 21st century. The film and the performances all have this aloof, alternate reality vibe that makes it hard to fully invest in or identify with Joe and her plight. Maybe some of this has to do with the film’s budget, maybe it’s intentional on Von Trier’s part; but only Gainsbourg is convincing as a complex, emotional being. Everyone and everything else seems to just kind of orbit around her in some alternate reality.
I’m sure there’s someone out there ready to argue with me that that was the point and Von Trier’s intent. Perhaps. But that wouldn’t make this exercise any more coherent or, frankly, necessary. This is one of those movies (or two movies) where you look back after nearly four hours and realize you aren’t coming away with anything more than when you went in, and certainly nothing that couldn’t have been covered in half the time.
As it is, Von Trier’s thesis is strong and his ideas are ambitious. And Gainsbourg’s bravery and contributions to this project can’t be overstated. But “Nymphomaniac” never grabs the viewer the way it should; and worse yet, fails to justify putting audiences through four hours of sexual cruelty and awful behavior. The perverse notion that Von Trier is smirking proudly at that doesn’t help either.
2 Stars (Out of 4)