Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac: First Look
Posted on Tuesday December 17, 2013, 12:33 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac arrives with a very different kind of controversy to the one we expected. It is indeed sexually explicit, as advertised, but is it the whole movie? The answer is yes and no, since the version screened to Empire in Copenhagen at the beginning of December began with a disclaimer noting that the film has been edited – with Von Trier's permission but without his involvement. So while it is the genuine, official release version, there is the small matter of a further 90 minutes, which will very much be the elephant in the room when it comes to reviewing it.
Funnily enough, though, Nymphomaniac not only feels like a complete film, it doesn't feel madly long in its four-hour format, which breaks down roughly into 1hr 50 for Volume One and 2hrs 10 for Volume Two. First things first, however: this is not an entry-level Von Trier film, and it helps to have a certain familiarity with his style and themes. In many ways, it is a greatest hits package, since it reprises certain moments from his entire back catalogue, usually with a wink (such as a moment that threatens to re-enact Antichrist's harrowing opening scene beat for beat).
As is often the case with Von Trier, the story has a narration, of sorts. It begins with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a lonely intellectual, who finds the battered body of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a back alley on his way home from the shops, Rammstein's Führe Mich blasting out as he does so. Joe refuses his offer to call the police but agrees to go home with him to recover. Tucked up in bed, she tells him her story, explaining who she is in a series of chapters that take her from the age of two to the present day. Seligman listens intently, and their conversation is the spine of the movie, with Seligman adding often absurdly digressive comments to Joe's revelations.
Volume One is easily the lighter of the two halves, with Stacy Martin proving very game as the younger Joe. Unusually for Von Trier, the setting is a faux Britain, rather than a parallel USA, and it is in a bleak, provincial, industrial town that Young Joe meets Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), who will prove to be the one significant constant in her life. Given the subject matter, the tone in the first half is surprisingly comical at times; in sharp contrast to the wilful, knowing Joe, men are portrayed as saps and weaklings, notably in a wonderful scene in which one of her useless lovers, H (Hugo Speer), declares his love for her, bringing down the wrath of Mrs H (a superb Uma Thurman).
Throughout, Von Trier litters the story with asides and observations. If Lars likes it, it's in here, from fly fishing to Bach, ash trees and fibonacci numbers (don't worry, it's explained). If that sounds boring, the shaggy-dog nature of the story is deceptively compelling, with the characters frequently commenting on its implausibilities and weaknesses. In this way, Nymphomaniac is the purest Von Trier movie yet, in the sense that there is no Brechtian narrative to hide behind – the framing device might as well be Von Trier having a conversation with himself, the bookish, left-leaning polymath trying to come to terms with his reckless, anarchic and sometimes self-destructive alter ego.
Volume Two goes deeper and darker, featuring the more upsetting sequences in Joe's masochistic relationship with the violent, sadistic K (Jamie Bell). This is where the meat of the movie lies, since this is where Joe comes to terms with who she is and it is where we begin to realise that sex has been a red herring all along. Though most of the film was conceived before the controversy at Cannes last year, it's easy to see the scenes that were added subsequently, mostly in Joe's bitter attacks on political correctness. Indeed, replace the words “sex addict”, as Joe's character is labelled by the “respectable” outside world, with “attention seeker” and Joe's dilemma becomes clearer.
The sexual content is, as you might imagine, quite full on, with porn doubles seamlessly spliced in with the cast. The use of so many Hollywood actors – aside from LaBeouf and Thurman, there's Christian Slater as Joe's tree-loving dad – can be distracting, but mostly in the sense that one can only wonder how they were persuaded to sign up for such a bizarre project. But by the time the four-hour mark rolls round, that isn't what sticks in the mind. What does is the way Von Trier has corralled such a sprawling story into a linear narrative, while at the same time fashioning something quite profound and personal out of what seems at first sight to be pure provocation.
For Von Trier fans, the result is nirvana. This is a director who has never had “form”, just a series of periods, and this comes closest to the Golden Hearts trilogy of Breaking The Waves, The Idiots and Dancer In The Dark than anything since. There is, however, that extra 90 minutes floating about, which features more explicit sex and more controversial issues (including, allegedly, abortion). When and where that Director's Cut will appear we don't yet know, but as an appetiser, Nymphomaniac more than passes muster. Funny, mischievous and thoughtful, it is, beneath its “shocking” surface, a first-division work from one of the great maverick filmmakers of our time.