I never know exactly what I think about Lars von Trier. On one hand he’s a master provocateur and prankster that you should never take too seriously, but on the other hand he is a truly unique filmmaker who gets away with making some of the toughest, most thought-provoking films you’re ever likely to see. Love him or hate him, it’s almost entirely impossible not to at least respect his irreverence. Now in all honestly I’m not his biggest fan; I think that Breaking the Waves is a work of genius and I enjoyed his miniseries The Kingdom, but other than that I have respected his work but never really loved it. With Nymphomaniac, though, I really bought into the hype – the trailers, the poster campaign, the bizarre casting decisions, the fact that he had seemingly made a 5-hour pornographic film about sex… I just couldn’t resist and took the first opportunity that came along to see the double-bill. In the end, Nymphomaniac will be released in two 2-hour segments, with an hour cut out of von Trier’s preferred version (from my understanding it’s mostly a lot more talking and not so much explicit content that’s been removed).
Nymphomaniac is about Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac who is discovered bloody and unconscious by the asexual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Seligman takes her in, gives her tea and a place to rest and in return she tells him her story, portrayed on screen in a series of chapters covering various different periods of her life. Joe tells Seligman about her various conquests and sexual dalliances, which he in turn takes at face value and relates them to things he can understand (fly fishing, Fibonacci numbers etc.) in a very non-judgemental way. In fact, Joe is full of condemnation for her own acts and seems surprised at his acceptance, making her ever-worsening chapters the possible tales of an unreliable narrator simply out to shock (remind you of anyone?)
Nymphomaniac is entirely unexpected and I both loved it and hated it. I’m fairly convinced this was von Trier’s intention all along. The first thing you notice about the film is that it is very, very funny, and yes it way surpasses the 6 laugh rule, making it far more amusing than just about any mainstream comedy I’ve seen in recent years. Secondly, it’s really not as erotic or explicit as you’d think despite it being unrelentingly about and obsessed with sex, which incidentally is oftentimes portrayed as surprisingly dull. Lastly, yes it is just about as infuriating as anything else von Trier has ever done and I was constantly aware that I was watching one of his films, never sure what he was going to do next. This tension both works and doesn’t work on a number of different levels, because it certainly adds an air of the unpredictable but also because you are always trying to figure out whether or not he’s fucking with you or being serious, it’s equally infuriating. Much has been made of Shia LaBeouf and his bizarre accent, but as the film is set in a non-specific place in a non-specific time where everyone has a weird accent I’m not entirely sure what the problem is, despite it being mildly distracting, which a lot of the film is incidentally. I feel that this particular aspect has been picked up on mostly due to LaBeouf’s recent presence in the media. It is intentionally unusual and the use of a familiar, yet alien environment works to Nymphomaniac’s advantage for much of the film, successfully creating an otherness.
As for the film being split into two parts, they aren’t worth the cost of two cinema tickets, and although the first is better than the second they do feel like two halves of the same film. If anything, a better option would have been to cut it down to 3-hours and release it as one film with the optional director’s cut on DVD. I was totally with Nymphomaniac for about three quarters of the running time, but by the end, through a combination of exhaustion and the film taking a somewhat unexpected nose dive into the realms of melodramatic erotic thriller, I was ready for it to be over a good half hour before it was. However, the film is at its strongest when it is with young Joe (Stacy Martin); Uma Thurman pretty much steals the show in her 5 minutes of screen time, and later on Jamie Bell is wonderfully dangerous as K, a male dominatrix. Towards the end, and particularly with the introduction of P (Mia Goth), I started to lose interest and struggle with the direction the film took with regards to believability (if such a thing even exists in von Trier’s universe). Although I feel the film has a fairly strong feminist message in terms of embracing a woman’s right to disregard traditional views on love and relationships and embrace her sexuality, its questionable stance on race and a later comment on paedophilia is wilfully provocative in a way that could be interpreted as either making us question our own views and prejudices on each subject, or merely being there simply to piss the viewer off.
What is most frustrating – and again perhaps entirely intentional and self-aware – is that if this film had been made by just about anyone else I would be heralding it a masterpiece, but because it is von Trier I’m left feeling exhilarated, amused, frustrated and honestly, like a bit of a mug for even sitting though it to begin with. What von Trier has done is take his funniest and most accessible film to date, and by slapping a title on it like Nymphomaniac, making it almost unwatchably long and by injecting real sex, he has made it completely inaccessible. I’m really not sure if the joke is on him or on us.