by Kathie Smith
Much has been made about Lars von Trier’s abuse of his female actors and their characters’ physical and emotional martyrdom. But that scrutiny only diverts attention from the real victims of his provocations: we the audience, including those who sat in shock and awe at a press conference on May 18, 2011 at the Cannes Film Festival where he sarcastically admitted that he sympathized with the Nazis. Moments like this—Björk’s post-Dancer in the Dark comments that von Trier was sexist, John C. Reilly walking off the set of Mandalay because a donkey was killed, and von Trier claiming to be in constant telepathic communication with Carl Theodore Dreyer on the making of Medea—have an air of chaotic inadvertence, but you need look no further than his films to know that von Trier is a man of maximal calculation specializing in cause célèbre. (Shia LaBeouf, you’ve been punk’d.) Seated in a dark movie theater, his skills at manipulation become all the more palpable and direct; the two money shots in Antichrist (excruciating brutality with both male and female genetalia) are meant to divide and conquer audience sentiments with audacious haute couture. Like a cat with its prey, von Trier takes pleasure toying not only with viewer’s expectations and but also with film’s possibilities.
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Producers: Bert Hamelinck, Marianne Slot, Louise Vesth
Cinematographer: Manuel Alberto Claro
Editors: Morten Højbjerg, Molly Marlene Stensgaard
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen
Premiere: December 25, 2013 Denmark
US Theatrical Release: March 21, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
It’s taken a while, but distributors and marketers are catching on to his stratagems. No discussion about his new project Nymphomaniac (a title made to taunt) would be complete without mentioning the rollout of the “O-Face” posters, the NSFW teasers and trailers, LaBeouf wearing a paper bag over his head, the whittling and bifurcation of the five-hour epic, and its subsequent release satiating compulsory on-demand home viewers first and theater-goers dedicated to the communal experience second. Although this pre-release fodder probably had little impact beyond fans who were already pining for some combination of Charlotte Gainsbourg, LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Stellan Skarsgård, and Christian Slater, it’s impossible to approach Nymphomaniac: Vol. I without seeing the swirl of extratextual material. Unfortunately, what weighs most heavily upon the viewing experience of Vol. 1 is not what is there—which is a glorious grab bag of multifarious artistic and intellectual sparks—but what is so glaringly missing when you get to the end of the bread crumbs in part one.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 opens with a jaw-dropping display of poetic depravity. Like his two previous films, von Trier creates a prologue of archetypal opulence. Antichrist gave us sex and death via the delicacy of an aria by George Frideric Handel; Melancholia delivered scenes from the apocalypse accompanied by Richard Wagner’s grand romantic prelude to Tristan and Isolde; and Nymphomaniac kicks it up a notch with an exordium of degeneracy punctuated by German metal band Rammstein. But Nymphomaniac eases you into the assault, slowly finding the ambient light of a rainy evening and the sound of water dripping on a tin roof as they both literally and metaphorically leads you down a dark alley. The camera investigates the space—its dark corners and mysterious ducts—and reveals a crumpled human figure. The figure is Joe (Gainsbourg) who will be found by Seligman (Skarsgård)—but not before he does his shopping at the corner store for milk and biscuits with the absurdly non-diegetic use of Rammstein’s “Führe Mich” cocooning him in an ambience of damnation. Like a prolonged atmospheric moment in a horror film, the setup launches us into Joe’s tale of original sin—is it the downfall of man or the liberation of a woman?
Refusing Seligman’s insistence on an ambulance, Joe instead takes his offer of tea and shelter. More curious than concerned, Seligman wants to know what happened to Joe and how she ended up battered and bruised behind his apartment. She agrees to tell him how it happened, but warns him (and us) that she must tell her entire story. “It’s my own fault. I’m a terrible human being.” And so begins her life story on becoming a nymphomaniac, told in flashback with Stacy Martin playing the young adult Joe: her charmed relationship with her father, her antagonism with her mother, her insignificant deflowering, and her subsequent sexual games exerting power over men, rebelling against the status quo, and defying the humiliating lure of love.
Seligman might be her captive audience, but he is also the cerebral translator for her prototypical sexual fairy tale, drawing out symbolic references to her carnal exploits: he sees Joe’s story about seducing as many men as possible on a train as a parallel to the strategies used in fly fishing; instead of being empathetic towards Joe’s first unsatisfactory sexual experience, Seligman notices that the pelvic thrusts involved (3+5=8) are Fibonacci numbers, a sequence often mathematically associated with the enigma of the universe; and Seligman cites Bach’s use of polyphony on the organ (of course) as a representation of Joe’s multiple sexual partners, each a separate melody to her overall composition. As a result, Joe’s titillating exposé remains oddly analytical, keeping visceral expectations at arms’ length through retrospective distance, diagnostic perspective, and a fair amount of humor.
Stylistically, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 uses tactics similar to the narrative to mitigate any rendering of passion, lust, or arousal with the aid of novelistic chapters, split-screen diagrams, graphic overlays, and didactic educational footage randomly diving into the art of fly lures or the musical genius of Bach. Statistically speaking, Vol. 1 has ample displays of full frontal male nudity but most come in the form of a scientific slide show of genitalia as Joe rattles off the types of men she’s had sex with. The playful storybook approach—with chapter names like “The Complete Angler” and “The Little Organ Shop”—imbues the movie with a sense of facetious recreation that would not last if the experience of Nymphomaniac had not been split in half. But as it is, the only dip Vol. 1 takes into deeper emotional resonance is when Joe’s father (Slater) spirals into delirium and she is tenderly forced to allow her one connection to the world float away.
Despite her preferred detachment, Joe finds a cantus firmus or dominant melody in her polyphonic sexual opus in Jerome (LeBeouf), a man who keeps weaving back into her life. At a pubescent age she chooses him to take her virginity (with a total of eight Fibonacci thrusts) because he has strong hands and rides a moped, and she doesn’t see him again until years later when she finds herself fortuitously employed as his secretary. Feeling the threat of love and affection looming around Jerome, she refuses to have sex with him but nonetheless secretly yearns for him until one day he is gone. Her fateful reunion with Jerome and ruinous submission to love forms the unsuspecting cliffhanger of Vol. 1. The sudden ending might work as an episodic intermission—assuming you can immediately put in the coins for Vol. 2--but it fails theatrically by landing on the moment where you know von Trier is about to step on the gas.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Nymphomaniac is intended as one experience in which the ratcheting exposition isn’t interrupted by a day, a week, or a month. We search Vol. 1 in vain for the source of Joe’s initial admission of guilt as well as the psychological rope we would expect from von Trier that would pull us into abrupt and uncomfortable places. For a film that induces more ideas than it does endorphins, Vol. 1 lacks the propulsion needed for a continuation and instead kicks you out the door holding little more than a question mark. The disruption of the narrative arc is incredibly disappointing only because you feel that this fiery intellectual discourse has prepared you for the mysterious ether that lies just beyond your reach. The powerhouse opening of Vol. 1 will surely be accompanied by an incendiary ending to Vol. 2—you just have to wait.
In the end, this is a diatribe about my personal preferences when it comes to watching movies and my desires to be immersed in a filmmaker’s endeavor. Film form has extraordinarily potent abilities within its temporal constraints, but even within those restrictions you have things as perversely diparate as Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World and Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space and Christian Marclay’s The Clock—proof that there was and is sufficient room for a five-hour moral exploration by Lars von Trier. Distribution strategies have failed von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, but only until you can get both volumes playing at once. In local theaters, that’s two weeks away (if Vol. 1 can hold on)—or you can simply buckle to the persuasions of video-on-demand where both are available right now. This feels like a manipulation that not even von Trier would agree to.