by Lee Purvey
If you maintain any sort of internet awareness regarding independent film or pop culture, your first introduction to Nymphomaniac (Danish writer-director Lars von Trier’s 14th feature) probably had less to do with its cinematic merits than its controversial content: employing an elaborate array of prostheses and image splicing technology, Nymphomaniac contains unambiguous images of unsimulated sex throughout, along with some much more disturbing sequences of violence and grisly medical practice. Yet despite its pornographic audacity, Nymphomaniac isn’t all that erotic, a far cry from softcore dramas like Black Book or The English Patient. At different moments in the film, sexual intercourse is a political statement, an interrogation tool, a reproductive reality, an intellectual exercise, and frequently just a mechanical action, a verb rendered visual as one might the act of cooking a meal or walking to the shop. Rarely is it something the audience is meant to enjoy.
Director: Lars von Trier
Producer: Louise Vesth
Writer: Lars von Trier
Cinematographer: Manuel Alberto Claro
Editors: Morten Højbjerg, Jacob Schulsinger, Molly Malene Stensgaard
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan
Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen
Countries: Denmark/Germany/ Belgium/UK/France
Premiere: February 9, 2014 – Berlin International Film Festival (uncut version)
US Theatrical Release: October 2, 2014 (uncut version)
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
This is not to say that von Trier is disinterested in audience reaction. This is a film centrally concerned with sex and society, with the line between the audience and that latter category growing uncomfortably blurry as the film progresses. Ultimately, Nymphomaniac will tell you a lot more about your own thoughts on sexuality--and specifically women's sexuality--than you probably ever cared to know.
Framed as essentially a single conversation, Nymphomaniac is the life story of a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as told to a kindly, scholarly bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds her beaten in the alley behind his apartment. Over the course of a night, Joe describes a life built entirely around her compulsive sexuality, tracing her path from infancy to the middle-aged present (Gainsbourg shares duties with several other actresses, with newcomer Stacy Martin portraying Joe throughout most of the film’s first half), her narration supplemented by lengthy flashbacks.
This oral autobiography soon becomes a sort of ideological battleground, with Joe’s antisocial self-loathing--she claims responsibility for her beating, offering only “I’m a bad human being” by way of explanation--finding a worthy opponent in Seligman’s inventive humanism. For each episode of selfish hedonism Joe shares, Seligman has a response ready, invoking everything from Beethoven to fly-fishing to Christian iconography in an attempt to find humanity and heart in Joe’s lifestyle.
While it gets rather contrived after its first few repetitions, this structure nonetheless serves to enliven the constant transitions back and forth in time and brings dimension to Joe and Seligman’s developing relationship. Seligman, importantly, also serves as functional surrogate for the Western liberal conscience of von Trier’s viewership, clashing with Joe not only on the matter of her sexuality, but also on race relations, murder, reproductive rights.
And, despite these cerebral trappings, Nymphomaniac is a quintessentially plot-driven film. Checking in, between its two volumes, at a whopping 325 minutes in its uncut form, the film can afford to have it both ways: dwelling with luxury in the episode, the digression, the analysis and meta-analysis, while simultaneously building a more or less coherent study of a person’s life. What eventually emerges is Joe’s evolution from antagonistic sexual outcast--still attempting to navigate a mainstream whose values she finds despicable--to a haunted and lonely occupant of the criminal underworld. In between, we pass through sexual discovery, motherhood, the death of a parent, sadomasochistic exploration, love, and any number of other chapters.
The deep intellectualization of each of these experiences and their attendant philosophical implications might hijack a lesser movie, a life disfigured as rote mental exercise. Nymphomaniac’s success in transcending its formula is in no small part owing to excellent performances across the board. Skarsgård for his part sells his character’s improbable erudition with a sincerity only matched by Joe’s scornful response (Gainsbourg proves the perfect vehicle for a woman worn down, but still stubbornly herself, after a lifetime of social alienation). Among an effective supporting cast, the ever audacious Shia LaBeouf offers a reasonable British accent and an alluring ambivalence as Joe’s great love and the father of her child.
But the newcomer Stacy Martin is the unquestionable standout, delivering a sublime performance that subverts normative notions of gender, sex, and romance to her character’s own idiosyncratic ends. Around men, the first-time actress’ Joe is a beautiful blank, a sex object who speaks in coy monosyllables, hyperbolizing patriarchal erotic fantasies to advance a humorously antithetical agenda of sexual deviance. This point is hammered home in a brilliant early sequence during which Joe and her friend B. (Sophie Kennedy Clark) compete to see how many men they can have sex with during a short train ride: “Smile, make eye contact” and “ask lots of ‘Wh?’ questions” is the only instruction Joe needs to emerge the winner. Only occasionally—and mostly in the company of her father (Christian Slater) or LaBeouf’s Jerôme—does she drop the act, and only slightly, emitting flickers of a personality deemed socially incompatible and forced out of sight.
The uncut, complete version of Nymphomaniac is 84 minutes longer than the theatrically distributed film, which received a staggered two-volume release during the spring of last year. Most of the additional content takes the form of small segments nuancing already existing scenes and ideas—plenty more stock footage and other von Trier-ian visual hijinks, too—but there is one chapter that appears in the director’s cut that was completely absent in the original release: a subplot in which Joe, fed up with the bureaucratic hoops necessitated by treatment through the medical community, decides to perform an abortion on herself, with amateur implements and without anesthesia. As you can probably imagine, this is an awful thing to watch and, at least at first glance, feels like the only truly egregious example of audience-baiting in the film, with von Trier aiming more for shock value than realism (this is a man who publicly called himself a Nazi as a joke, we remember). Maybe so, but von Trier is smart enough to acknowledge this nettling quality and subject it to the same measured analysis as everything else in his sprawling meticulous film.
Truly uncomfortable for one of the few times throughout Joe’s story, Seligman purports to support her decision and fundamental right to abort, but adds “when it comes to the method, I think the less said the better.” Joe’s response is the closest Nymphomaniac ever comes to a thesis: “On principle, I believe that taboos are damaging for human beings.” The two hem back and forth on the issue for a while longer, but, as with the film itself, there is finally no satisfactory answer.
As Joe’s story comes to a close, Seligman holds forth with some very swallowable sum-it-all-up-type feminist rhetoric, but von Trier (in what has to be the finest ending of any film released in 2014) undermines him before the words have barely left his mouth. Therein lies von Trier’s genius: paying playful lip service to liberal hegemonies of tolerance, rationality, humanism before demolishing them to dig into the real meat underneath.
Really, all von Trier does is show it; the real work comes in confronting your own response to the image.