There’s a daringness and certainly a great degree of ambition to Danish auteur Lars von Trier’s latest misanthropic opus Nymphomaniac, but there’s also a been there, done that kind of feel to his work here that’s almost more distressing than the subject matter. A two part, ten chapter story (both parts of which will be released theatrically this week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox with separate admissions) about a one woman’s struggles with sexuality and society, the film seems like more of a self-congratulatory, overlong greatest hits album instead of a cohesive new work that’s worth of being over four hours long in the first place. As with most von Trier it’s far more intellectually stimulating than the salacious topic at hand would suggest at passing glance, but its full of topics that he’s already explored more in depth elsewhere.
Physically and emotionally beaten, left to think on her life in an alleyway, a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken in by a kindly, older passerby named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) to recover on his bed. An intellectual asexual type, Seligman asks for Joe to relate what led to her ending up in the alleyway without fear of judgement. She relates to him her entire life story and how her addiction to sexual activity has ruined her life. From her childhood with a loving father (Christian Slater) and a “cold bitch” mother (Connie Neilsen), to her teen years spent cruising for sexual conquests devoid of love (with younger Joe played by Stacy Martin for most of Part 1), to being married to the one constant male figure in her life (Shia LaBeouf) and losing all sensation and ability to enjoy sexual release, Joe retraces every step in great detail. The storyteller and the listener then go back and forth to try and discern if there’s a greater meaning to it all.
Nymphomaniac is a film that’s brilliant in parts and it’s assuredly effective, but any real sense of suspense or mystery will be lost on people overly familiar with von Trier’s previous work. But those who can frequently find great amounts of merit in his pessimistic brand of humanism will get quite a lot from it. His viewpoint has often been that all human beings are inherently shitty, but those who can admit they are shitty are a far better class of people. Keeping that in mind (as well as all of von Trier’s other works except for possibly Melancholia) will make this film’s ultimate end game quite predictable, but much like the analysis of mathematics in relation to daily life (one of the film’s biggest points of potential overanalysis), the film isn’t about a net sum, but rather looking at the parts that make up a person’s constitution individually. And in typical von Trier fashion, it’s often a look within the filmmaker himself, as Nymphomaniac is nothing if not a deeply personal film from an emotional filmmaker.
Nymphomaniac feels like a cross between a greatest hits album and a writing exercise perpetrated by an artist to not only act as self-analysis, but to answer to those who wish to analyze him. It begins, as most von Trier films with an overture, and his most haunting use of the bygone technique. For a long time it remains black and uncomfortably silent, almost giving the audience the suggestion that they could still get out of this. It’s blackness as a joke. Then, as the silence and darkness gradually gives way to ambient noise of rain falling on alleyway trashcans, von Trier then kicks open the doors, blasts some Rammstein, and begins the story with a tracking shot from a woman lying motionless to someone nearby buying pastries like nothing is wrong with the world. The choice of music and setting before it’s even widely known what the rest of the film is going to be about isn’t an apology or a warning for what’s to come, but as simple and matter of fact a statement of purpose as he has ever been able to achieve to date.
As with many of his other efforts, the film also gets divided up into chapters, but this time with more than a few twists. As Joe tells her life story, she gives the chapters titles based on items she sees throughout the room or inspired by something Seligman tells her about in one of his many overly academic digressions. It suggests, possibly not incorrectly, that von Trier (someone noted for creating obstructions within his own work habits to construct greater art) has crafted all of his story elements in a similar manner. This time, between chapters and often within them, the film cuts back to Seligman, a doubter and a skeptic, openly questioning and trying to rationally make sense of Joe and the lives she describes. The problem isn’t that Joe is an unreliable narrator, but that Seligman refuses to believe that she is. Their relationship is based in a tenuous form of kindness with Joe playing the emotional artist sharing a story that means more to her on a personal level than she could ever hope to articulate and Seligman as the person who constantly needs a frame of reference to understand something he has never experienced himself.
It adds a parlor trick element to the proceedings that in many ways gets to the heart of modern criticism. On one hand, it’s very easy to go through Nymphomaniac and spot references to other films (Antichrist, Melancholia, Breaking the Waves, Epidemic, Dogville, even his workplace comedy Boss of it All makes an appearance), but on the other, it’s obvious that all of these films and whatever is within von Trier’s “room” or mind has made him who he is. Nymphomaniac, even more so than Melancholia, is about an unseen man who places himself constantly in the shoes of his female leads wrestling with humanity, but one where he suggests all previous analysis has been incorrect and that people focus far too much on imprinting their own ideas onto something rather than seeing the film for its simplest points.
Seligman constantly tries to impart his own readings of music, art, culture, literature, mathematics, and whatever else he has learned over his lifetime of not getting laid (a flat out joking nod to critics everywhere) onto the life story of a hurting woman. He isn’t judging her sex addiction, which is why quite often the film’s look at sexuality and intimacy is a distant third place behind emotion and analysis in terms of the film’s most interesting topics. Skarsgard gives a brilliantly nuanced performance for someone who on paper must have appeared dead eyed and purposefully boring. Seligman’s wheels are always turning, always looking for that one “EUREKA!” moment where he can be seen as the smartest person in a room that contains only two people. Seligman might be asexual, but his love for analysis is his sin. It is his greatest pleasure; to suggest depth when he’s just as much pulling connections out of his ass as much as the storyteller is.
While the film’s individual segments wouldn’t be as interesting in the greater whole without these interstitial moments, it definitely gives Gainsbourg more to do than just act incredulous towards Skarsgard; maybe not incredulous, but a fake kind of politeness and geniality that only a true humanist could have. By extension, it also shows the growth of Joe as a character by way of some equally committed and brave work from Martin in Part 1. In fact, what makes Nymphomaniac’s overall look at sexuality, kink, and societal shaming so interesting is just how normal of an upbringing Joe has. She had at least one parent that loved her, and a mother that she seems a bit harsh on, probably out of a fight with her own biology that she was never prepared for. She had friends that were bad influences. She unwisely lost her virginity to someone that she loved, but at a point where she wasn’t prepared for it. She seems to have regret (or at least a knowing sense of justice) over using her sexuality to get her first big job. Taking out of the picture just how many people she slept with, Joe found it within herself to grow up into a fully functional human being, and one that’s perfectly capable of chasing after her own desires.
Life isn’t that simple, however, and quickly Joe sees how her sexuality can complicate matters. Joe was once told by a close friend that the secret ingredient to sex is love, and love is a hard concept for anyone to be mature enough to feel. A moment where a lover leaves his wife and family to carry on almost exclusively with Joe yields a tremendous, film stealing performance in one of the stories from Uma Thurman as the scorned husband and mother who literally parades her three children around Joe’s apartment to show them where their father will be spending the rest of his days. It has nothing to do with love, but through Thurman’s performance close to the end of part one, this is the first time that Joe seems cognizant of the feelings of other people rather than her own.
Also in Part One, the idea of sexuality potentially being a cure and a disease gets examined in a black and white segment where Joe watches her father dying slowly and painfully in hospital. Prior to this, Joe was having sex simply for fun, now, she is officially using it to fill a gap in her life that’s growing bigger every moment. It becomes something to do because she’s at a point in her maturation as a person – one that anyone will go through, male or female – where she needs something to do in order to put off analyzing her own faults. That this period comes in her early 20s makes perfect sense. It feels organic rather than a provocation. This organic process drives Seligman to the point of near anger in the present timeline, but in reality it’s an almost refreshingly unremarkable development.
At the end of the first half, Joe marries and tries to settle down with the one man she’s ever truly loved, and she realizes she can no longer achieve orgasm. Only at the end of the first half does the film start to really be about Nymphomania, and therein lies the main problem with the film. There feels like a more decided bit of finality to the story when Joe’s sexual life seems to come to an end. In that sort of death of happiness, Lars has made his point. But factoring in the current time line and dialogue that the film as a whole has built itself around, it makes the second half a lot more standard and unsteady.
Unable to find happiness even after having a child with Jerome (who, for what it’s worth, is very well realized by LaBeouf despite a baffling accent), she seeks sexual stimulation in more extreme circumstances. Jerome is accommodating and understanding to a point, suggesting that she sleep around to save their marriage despite his clear unease at the prospect. Nothing seems to work, including a potential ménage a trois with a couple of black drug dealers that don’t speak a word of English in a scene that feels far too much like von Trier purposefully trying to troll the audience after sticking with him for so long.
Eventually she makes her way to Jamie Bell’s K, a domineering man, who much like Seligman doesn’t need actual penetration to make himself feel good sexually. He’s a soft spoken torturer, and likely just as much of a surrogate for von Trier as Joe is. Tying Joe down and whipping her with a promise that there will be no stopping or possibility of submission, the film transforms Joe into an almost Christ-like figure that plays a bit too handily into similar feelings of pain mixed with superiority that von Trier has explored a lot more in depth in his other films. He gradually starts losing control over the narrative here, before losing all of his steam leading into the final story – the one part that’s supposed to explain why Joe was in such poor shape in the alleyway in the first place. While the climax does rely heavily on coincidence (not that there’s anything wrong with that since another major point of the film is to hammer into the viewers mind that coincidence is a perfectly acceptable storytelling device as long as it makes sense), it also just creates an almost literal Chekov’s gun to lead the film into territory that can be seen coming from the very first few lines of dialogue.
The final tale is an unwieldy mess from out of left field, and it’s quite sadly the story that takes up the most time. Now on her own, having lost her child and husband due to her own irresponsibility and neglect while letting K beat her, Joe has taken a job as a torturous enforcer for a collections agent (Willem Dafoe). The job will force her into contact with P (a great Mia Goth), a young woman that Joe’s boss wants to be trained for her eventual replacement. It’s unsure exactly what her boss sees in Joe because we already know that Joe isn’t heartless (and in a scene in this story that’s again almost too openly transgressive to work, she proves it) and that Joe’s particular set of skills can’t be taught to or learned by just anyone. The two eventually fall for each other, bringing a sense of closeness that Joe now realizes can never last.
Everything about the final segment of Nymphomaniac makes the whole film feel like a very long walk for a very obvious and predictable payoff. It’s von Trier writing himself into a corner and then kind of shrugging it off. Narratively by this point, he has proven that he can do whatever he wants, but thematically and dramatically the film becomes a lot less interesting. Maybe that’s the point; to rob the one thing that audience had previously been getting off on in order to bring the viewer down to Joe’s level, but it grows more and more tiresome as it goes on and as von Trier pushes himself a bit too hard. Granted, even this four hour version still doesn’t represent the entirely of the film (there’s still an hour missing, and von Trier had no hand in the cuts), so even with both parts playing back to back as a whole, there’s still a sense something is missing. It’s a good enough effort that’s not quite on part with his more succinct and on point career bests. And despite the problems of Part 2, I don’t think I can really write the ending off as a whole. I don’t need to analyze it more like Seligman probably wishes he could have, but I do need more information.