Nymphomaniac (Lars Von Trier, 2014) – For years Lars Von Trier has threatened to smack audiences with his take on an “erotic” movie. The plucky provocateur always brought an exploitation filmmaker’s chutzpah and showmanship to his art house career, and chasing the metaphorical white whale of a serious erotic drama that porn kings and legitimate filmmakers have attempted since the 70s is about as publicity bating as one can get from the art house sector. Backed by a delightfully nasty ad campaign and the promise of X-rated directors cuts with CGI-inserted porn star naughty bits, sitting down to watch his four-hour tragic genital odyssey brings a certain level of nausea along with it. Even as someone who admires and trusts Von Trier, you had to feel nervous about whether or not this experiment would work. Thankfully Nymphomaniac proves to be a more thoughtful and satisfying drama than a sleazy skin flick (at least in the rated version, anyways). The two-part picture isn’t Von Trier’s most satisfying effort, nor is it his most ambitious. However, as usual with the filmmaker’s post-Breaking The Waves output, you’ll come for the shock value and stay for the insightful human drama.
The film tells a life story through the endless sexual exploits of a nymphomaniac. More specifically, it casts Von Trier’s favorite tortured female actress in the lead, Charlotte Gainsbourg. In the first scene she is discovered beaten and destroyed in a lonely alley by Von Trier’s favorite creepy actor, Stellan Skarsgard (well, maybe his second favorite creep after Udo Kier, who sadly only makes a cameo in this flick). Skarsgard is an intellectual and a virgin who serves as an audience surrogate listening to Gainsbourg’s life story as she tries to heal up in his bed.
It starts with her life as a teen nymphette (Stacy Martin in her first role, who is sure to catch some attention at the very least), playing twisted games like “who can sleep with the most men on a train” with her friends while avoiding any sense of emotional attachment in favor of endless orgasms with strangers. The closest thing to the love of her life is Shia Labeouf’s cocky cockney wiseass, who takes her virginity as a teen and eventually fathers her child (despite a pretty horrendous accent, the professional plagiarist and “non-celebrity” is actually quite good). The split between the two films comes as the protagonist leaves her 20s and Gainsbourg takes over the role full time. However, that split is also determined by more than just running time.
Much like Von Trier’s sadly overlooked Melancholia, Nymphomaniac is very much a single story told in two tonally different films. The first film has an overarching tone of pitch black comedy. Von Trier is having naughty fun and inviting audiences along for the ride. The tales, while often devastating, are all laced with the director’s impish bleak humor (especially in Uma Thurman’s hysterical, scene stealing role as a distraught mother-of-three who pops up in to harass and hurt Martin for destroying her marriage in painfully funny ways).
Even when the episodic narrative isn’t itself funny, Von Trier goofs around with the Gainsbourg/Skarsgard linking scenes. Skarsgard hilariously over intellectualizes and analyzes all of Gainsbourg’s stories throughout. At times it feels like the director gently satirizing critics who over-analyze his work, especially during a hysterical fly-fishing analogy. At other times, it feels like the two characters represent the two halves of Von Trier’s filmmaking brain battling for the control of the movie, with Gainsbourg representing his emotionally-driven human storytelling side, and Skarsgard standing in for his arty intellectual side. Either way, the first half of the film is surprisingly playful and amusing despite the subject matter and impending sense of doom.
Then, much like Melancholia, the second movie starts and the fun promptly stops. Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 picks up with Gainsbourg as a married mother still unable to control her carnal urges and the small semblance of a normal life she clings to gradually dissipating into a dark journey of sexual obsession. Jamie Bell appears as a professional sadist who unlocks Gainsbourg’s latent masochism, Willem Dafoe pops up to provide a seedy profession for our heroine, and all manner of deviant sexuality gets a moment in front of Von Trier’s jiggling cameras in the protagonist’s dark decade of the soul. Even the Gainsbourg/Starsgard sequences turn harrowing as the flashbacks catch up to the present. Nymphomaniac eventually transforms into the type of harshly melodramatic tragedy that we’ve come to expect from this filmmaker since the 90s and it’s as painfully disturbing as anything he’s ever made. As usual, Von Trier has pulled a bait and switch. Audiences get suckered into Nymphomaniac in search of a little skin (even in the rated version, there are sequences and images that would never have made it to screens with any other director calling the shots), but end up caught in a horrendously tragic tale that’s anything but sexy.
In many ways, the film feels like Von Trier’s magnum opus. That’s not just in terms of sheer length, but also in the ways it combines so many of the thematic obsessions, technical experiments, and familiarly stunt-cast faces Von Trier has toyed with throughout his career. Yet, it’s not his best film even if it is his most all encompassing. As extraordinary as the performances are, as devastating as the experience feels, and as intellectually rich as the screenplay can be, there is an undeniable sense that he’s been here before. The themes of patriarchal control, the inherent cruelty of humanity, the ridiculous sickness of sexual desire, and poisonously uncontrollable self-destruction have all been explored by the director elsewhere in films as diverse as Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark, and Melancholia. However, saying that isn’t the same thing as saying the film is a tiresome, repetitive exorcize for its director. Far from it, Nymphomaniac is as potent, intriguing, and moving of a film as Von Trier has ever made. It’s just not his grand masterpiece or even his most punishing, button-pushing effort as the hype-machine suggests (that first title is still up for debate, the second title belongs Antichrist).
Whatever your opinion of Nymphomaniac as a film, the qualities of the Blu-Ray are undeniable. Visually, it’s a stunner with rich colors and details that never falter despite Von Trier’s preference for handheld cameras. You might not want to see all of his images in such clarity, but you certainly can. The audio mix is also quite strong, though obviously it’s not an action film that will suck you in with ear-bursting sound design. The special feature section is sadly slim, limited to only a handful of inconsequential interviews with actors filmed at a press junket. Part of that is due to Von Trier’s desire to retreat from the spotlight and part is probably due to the fact that the Criterion Collection will slip out a disc of the unrated cut soon loaded with features. So, you won’t buy this disc for the extras, but it’s still worth picking up. This is an undeniably fascinating effort from one of the most consistently fascinating filmmakers working today and as such qualifies as vital viewing. Granted, you may not enjoy the experience or irreparably harm a relationship if you turn Nymphomaniac into a date night. But then again, that’s all just par for the course with a Lars Von Trier movie at this point. (Phil Brown)