Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II
Director: Lars von Trier.
Screenplay: Lars von Trier.
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LeBeouf, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Jean-Marc Barr, Connie Nielsen, Mia Goth, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Udo Kier, Michael Pas, Jesper Christensen, Saskia Reeves, Caroline Goodall.
“Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colours when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.”
When provocateur Lars von Trier released the magnificent “Dogville” in 2003 and followed it up with “Manderlay” in 2005, I was very eager to see him complete his USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy. Unfortunately, the third instalment “Wasington” never came to fruition. He did, however, venture into another trilogy – focusing on depression. The gruelling and unforgettable “AntiChrist” was the first, followed by the restrained and meditative “Melancholia“. Now, von Trier completes this outstanding trilogy in style.
Volume I: Joe (Charlotte Gainbourg) is found in an alleyway by a compassionate man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). As she is badly beaten, Seligman takes her back to his home to nurse her. It’s here that Joe proceeds to tell him her life story of being a self-confessed nymphomaniac and the sexual encounters she had during her adolescence (played by Stacy Martin).
Volume II: Joe’s story of sexual exploration grows darker as she recounts her erotic adult experiences (now completely played by Gainsbourg) of group sex and bondage and how she found herself in the alleyway where the asexual, scholar Seligman found her.
Von Trier is certainly no stranger to quoting controversy. Throughout his whole directing career he has always managed to raise a few eyebrows and invite some vitriolic hatred towards his films. Personally, I regard him as one of the most important and visionary directors that we’ve ever had. I admire his unflinching approach to taboo subject matters as well as his intelligence in tackling such endeavours. He, admittedly, can be shocking but there’s always a level of intelligence to his films that far out way any of the gratuity that he’s proclaimed to deliver. “Nymphomaniac” is no different and it’s definitely a film to masticate over. Yes, I said masticate… That’s just your dirty minds taking hold already.
As you will have noticed, this is a review that encompasses both volumes in their entirety. The film is one complete story and being released in two parts, only strikes me that audiences wouldn’t have been fully prepared for a 4 hour sitting (although the Director’s Cut would be even more of a challenge as it runs for a full 5 1/2 hours).
Say what you will about von Trier and his movies but there really isn’t anyone else at the moment that’s tackling the matters that he does. As a society we often avoid uncomfortable subject matters or issues but if we fully explore the artform of film and how it can help us cathart or explore our innermost desires or fears then von Trier is certainly at the forefront of doing so. His films are, by no means, for those of a sensitive or prudish nature but for those willing to delve into the depths of human psyche or behaviour this man really shows no bounds. I, for one, applaud his unrepentant boldness and audacity.
The claims that this is just a self-indulgent porn film are sorely mistaken. This is, in fact, so much more than that. It’s an odyssey of self discovery and nihilistic sexual exploration, laid out in eight novelistic chapters (which also reflect Fibonacci numbers and the amount of times our protagonist was penetrated when she lost her virginity) and incorporates everything from masturbation, a montage of penises, the use of a Nymph in fly-fishing, Johan Sebastien Bach’s polyphonic harmonies and the use of the Prusik knot in bondage. If that’s not enough to wet a voracious vulva, then an education in “the silent duck” may just do the trick. But (as the tag line says) “Forget about love”. Love, we are informed, is “just lust with jealousy added“.
Von Trier doesn’t mince his words here and he rarely skips a beat. There are shades of the sexual promiscuity that he covered so well in “Breaking The Waves” and a similar, playful humorousness that he delivered in “The Idiots” – where he also had porn actors engage in the real intercourse scenes. Speaking of which, the CGI intercourse scenes are seamlessly and impressively handled and it’s difficult to tell where the porn actors start and the dramatic actors end. It’s quite an achievement and it’s during these scenes that some will view the film as exploitative or mere titillation but there’s a truth and depth to von Trier’s ambitions. He questions the intrinsic polarity of how a form of sexual-liberation can also be empty and soulless and he explores how science and religion form the constructs of how we behave socially.
Of course, a certain willingness to go along with von Trier’s philosophical ramblings is required and that’s where his cast pay him dividends. It’s through the commitment and bravery of his ensemble that he’s able to realise his vision and few, if any, let him down; Charlotte Gainsbourg (who has appeared in the complete trilogy), once again, shows a fundamental courageousness and Stellan Skarsgård (another of von Trier’s most reliable regulars) anchor the film with their naturalistic approaches. Solid support also comes from Jamie Bell as a sadomasochist and the American contingent of Willem Dafoe, Christian Slater and Shia LeBeouf (despite a very questionable accent) deliver good work. From that assemblage, though, it’s Uma Thurman who really shines as a scorned wife and mother. In one of the films most memorable scenes, she gate-crashes the house of her husband’s mistress asking to show her children the “whoring bed”, which their father has found so sacred. The biggest revelation, however, is newcomer Stacy Martin who fearlessly tackles her extremely difficult role with as much professionalism as an actress twice her age. Von Trier has unearthed a talent in this young actress and I’d be very surprised if we don’t see more of her in the future.
Quite simply, this a work of outstanding quality and substance and von Trier has opened up a whole new can of possibilities. He’s somehow managed to cross the boundary between pornography and mainstream filmmaking and delivers an ethical hypothesis that’s by turns comedic, sensationalist and intimate but does require a progressive open-mindedness in order to be receptive to it’s provocative themes. Trust me, leave your conservative mind at the door and, as a complete whole, embrace a true work of art.
Trivia: Shia LaBeouf was asked to send pictures of his penis in order to obtain his role. He subsequently decided to send in personal sex tapes of him and his girlfriend having sex in order to convince Lars von Trier to cast him