Lars von Trier’s latest film, according to the notoriously cagey and off-putting director, grew from a warning he received on the set of Melancholia. “Lars,” and I'm paraphrasing, “Make sure you try to respect women as you age since they aren’t playthings to strip in your films."
The response, naturally, was to make a 4 1/2 hour film about a woman who is pathologically obsessed with sex with frequent stylistic interludes and a metal anthem. Perhaps a punk song would have been more appropriate, because even in von Trier’s difficult-to-parse style he’s created a film that even his strident defenders would be hard-pressed to enjoy. Von Trier has made a film that, hilariously, is masturbatory in the most narrative-associated definition of the word. It is von Trier on von Trier, stemming from a warning, with some of the most talented performers in the world assembled to do his bidding in various states of dress.
This is a project so off-putting that I can’t help but love it in some ways, and be extremely troubled in others. I didn’t enjoy Nymphomaniac exactly, but von Trier challenges me so directly that I can’t help but turn his two films over in my mind repeatedly. This is the epic of a man who long ago realized he could churn his audiences through the depths of his fears and neuroses so long as he provides a modicum of distance and a heaping of style (even his Dogme ’95 movement was an extreme visual shift). Nymphomaniac asks just how far we’re willing to go to indulge him as the heroine tries to indulge herself – a direct challenge to keep watching someone who is getting off on our participation and wonders why we’ve stuck with the story.
Von Trier takes a page from the book of Tarantino, another man unafraid of self-indulgence, and splits Nymphomaniac up into two volumes. The first primarily deals with the early years of Joe, played as an adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg and in her teenage years by Stacy Martin. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds the adult Joe abandoned and bleeding in an alleyway. As he nurses her back to health she tells him the story of how she ended up in the alley, a tale that involves hundreds of sexual partners and her disappearing proclivity toward pleasure.
Von Trier tips his self-commentary hat early by giving Seligman a series of fishing observations meant to parallel Joe’s growing sexual taste. At first it seems the kind of line someone would mention in passing to form a connection with Joe’s unusual tastes. But as each scene goes on and Joe, growing into a woman with a healthy sexual appetite, Seligman’s comparisons to fishing grow more elaborate. Eventually it’s clear that he is not looking at Joe’s story as she is experiencing it, but as another tool for Seligman to relate to the world.
This is a basic philosophy that fills every pore of volume one. Von Trier uses a variety of film stocks of highlight Joe’s past when she is recalling her father in black and white and multiple on-screen visuals paralleling Joe’s sexual hunts with fishing techniques – to name a couple. Volume one, if nothing else, is a sensory feast that culminates in a haunting sequence of Joe’s sexual encounters with three different men, who each satisfy a different need, presented in multiple screens while different chords accompany one another on an organ. It has no dialogue and requires none, communicating the insatiable emotional need that some physical contact fills.
But we’re not seeing this just through Joe’s eyes, but with interpretation from Seligman. The parallel to von Trier’s own style is clear – and not immediately clear as to why. Von Trier has been accused of being a misogynist but his films always speak to something deeper than simple hatred or prejudice and it becomes damning commentary of his feelings. Nymphomaniac's presentation goes out of its way to be hip to his extreme style and calls attention to the technique frequently. So the question becomes not what good the style, and by extension von Trier’s films, is – but what we’re left with when it’s stripped away.
The most wrenching scenes of volume one become the punishing symbols of volume two as Von Trier steps away from the excess. We cannot understand what gives his characters pleasure and always need some kind of guide, a fisherman perhaps, to explain why they even bother getting up in the morning. But when Trier focuses on the pain (as he has in Antichrist) or death (the chilling final song of Dancer in the Dark) the melodrama transcends the trickery of his camera and is compelling in some way.
Von Trier’s mastubation never climaxes but, as volume two makes clear, he doesn’t want to please anyone. Gone are the stylistic flourishes, replaced instead by uncomfortably close glimpses into Joe’s masochistic desire to restore her ability to feel anything sexually. Then von Trier does something very curious, and in the midst of the pain stages a deliberate callback to the stylish death that opened Antichrist. This, combined with the final line and gunshot that closes the film, reveal Nymphomaniac as a film that can join the echelons of Michael Bay’s Transformers series that hold its audience and creator in dull contempt.
This is why, in spite of my rating, I have spoken very little about whether I enjoy the film or not. It holds my interest so strongly because of the way von Trier goes through his various styles and the strength of the performances - but this is all an exercise for him. Like playing a piece of sheet music, he puts Joe through a wringer that is not unique to his filmography, as he has done this before and will do it again. The implication of the final line, “You’ve done it with hundreds of men”, comes with it and implied question, “But not me?” We’ve gone through this story again and again, why should this woman and this man be special in von Trier’s tormented world?
They aren’t and the joke is on us. Von Trier made his film practically on a dare and he was given money to assemble some of the world’s most talented performers and visible creators to make the statement that he has done this before and until someone shoots him, he’ll do it again. Von Trier has been upfront about this in interviews about Nymphomaniac from the beginning.
I’m not happy, but I’m impressed.
Screenplay written and directed by Lars von Trier.
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, and Stellan Skarsgard.