Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac an exercise in excess sex
Say what you will about Lars von Trier but he has always been one to think big. Even when working with what might seem minimalist such as the sparse staging of Dogville (2003) or the demented chamber drama of Antichrist (2009) his results tend to be far from subtle. Antichrist marked the first in one of von Trier’s signature filmic trilogies — in this case dubbed The Depression Trilogy — which continued with 2011’s Melancholia and now culminates in his latest import Nymphomaniac .
And it’s big. Split ungracefully into two volumes (which it’s worth noting should not lead anyone to think there are two discreet “parts”; to view only the first part is to simply view half a film) Nymphomaniac clocks in at an unwieldy 241 minutes. Yes there is a lot of sex though one can’t help but think von Trier expects the premise and shock value to bolster its excessive running time when in many ways the ideas at work could hardly support a film half its length. Assuredly anyone approaching Nymphomaniac in the hopes of titillation might find themselves sorely disappointed while anyone hoping for a richer subtext will likely find it equally tedious. Fly-fishing enthusiasts on the other hand may find themselves pleasantly surprised.
The film opens with the image of its monomynous star Joe (played at various stages both by recent von Trier favourite Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin) lying battered and bloody in an alley. Found by the bookish Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) he brings her back to his apartment whereby Joe begins to recount her sexual life. It spans from when as she proclaims “I discovered my cunt at age two” up to the present moment. Narrating her way through her unceremonious deflowering early escapades various sexual partners experiments with the same sex (gasp!) with men of colour (heavens!) as well as a seemingly natural turn towards violent S&M and depression — would it be a von Trier film if his female protagonist didn’t suffer? — the film remains grounded around the dialogue between Joe and Seligman an unrelenting know-it-all always keen to tie an episode to a mathematical equation or literary reference.
With Nymphomanic von Trier seems as if he’s clinging less confidently to his claim as art cinema’s premier provocateur. He definitely has the ability to shock and incite — this reviewer admits to being roundly disgusted and turned off by Antichrist — but one can’t help but feel like they’re being conned with flashy gimmicks or sensational violence used to distract from confused ideas. Von Trier has always been keen to introduce stylistic digressions in his film always ready to show his hand and remind the viewer who is pulling the strings.
In this case however the intrusions feel incredibly cloying and tiresome. From old-hat von Trier tricks like unmotivated sequences in black-and-white vapid references to Andrei Tarkovsky and dalliances with the fantastical his stylistic predilections feel largely uninspired. Always keenly aware of music in his films certain choices are obnoxiously literal (see: Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” blasting as Joe and her partner stalk train-cars in search of men). Meanwhile onscreen digits count penetrations tongue-in-cheek cutaways illustrate dialogue and other playfulness make von Trier like a Michel Gondry whose wink arrives with a knowing smirk rather than a sincere smile.
Truly one can’t help but feel the film’s richest moments arrive when the pretenses are lowered. Almost undeniably the greatest scene in the film is played fully clothed with Uma Thurman as the scorned wife of one of Joe’s conquests. Arriving at Joe’s apartment to confront her husband and his mistress with her children in tow an absurd and all-too brief comedy of manners breaks out complicated by the arrival of Joe’s following appointment. In a film full of stylistic shifts that moment feels atypical for von Trier but one where he proves himself surprisingly apt. Shame about all that clutter around it.
It is to von Trier’s ultimate credit that while he sets up an eventual path of suffering and sorrow for his heroine he never seems to treat Joe’s affliction/proclivity (however you wish to consider it) with abjection. In a later scene as she attends a counselling session for her nymphomania we see Joe defiantly reclaim and own the term refuting the too-clinical designation of “sex-addict” and defiantly attesting “I love my cunt and my filthy dirty lust.” Whether one can outright declare Nymphomaniac a sex-positive or even feminist work — while there are suggestions of both — becomes muddy as von Trier seems unable or unwilling to develop the interesting ideas at work into anything truly stimulating opting all too often for the sensational. That it takes four hours for the few truly compelling thoughts to percolate feels especially wearisome. Even tantric sex has a payoff.