Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier wields a certain amount of influence and commands a level of respect that other filmmakers simply do not. I mean, despite the numerous outcries and controversies that have engulfed him and his films throughout his career, is there anybody else who could produce a highly explicit treatise on sexual addiction with a running time in excess of four hours and still secure a cinematic release in mainstream theatres? Whatever we may think of Von Tier as a person – and opinion seems to run the full gamut of the emotional spectrum – he is seemingly beholden to nobody and there are few other filmmakers who enjoy the freedom or the gumption to make whatever film takes their fancy, utterly unconcerned about what anybody may think. Following on from Antichrist and Melancholia, it is hardly surprising that Von Trier’s latest work again sees the director at the forefront of debates around sex, censorship, morality and art.
When watching Nymphomaniac, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we are supposed to take it seriously, or whether Von Trier is simply trying to see how far he can push the envelope. The story is presented through a series of flashbacks as recounted by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who, having been found beaten and bloodied in an alley by asexual academic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), settles in for a cup of tea in her saviour’s drab apartment and recounts her life of sexual compulsion; from her earliest experiences of youthful masturbation to teenage promiscuity to violent S&M, none of which ever seem to truly satisfy her. Whilst the film is filled with various incarnations of sex, it is not a particularly sexy experience. These scenes might be explicit, but they are rarely sensual. Joe’s interactions with so many of her sexual partners are cold and detached, each one serving as nothing more than a scratch to her eternal itch; a mere temporary fix. There are moments when the film veers off into other territory – such as Joe’s relationship with her father – but ultimately it is about her life as a self-confessed nymphomaniac.
Gainsbourg and Skarsgard deliver fine performances; the interplay between Joe and Seligman serving as a framing device for the various ‘chapters’ of Joe’s life. In fact, there are several strong performances in the film, with newcomer Stacy Martin a revelation as the young Joe. Such a character is a challenging undertaking for any actor, let alone somebody in their first on-screen role, but she handles it with considerable skill. Uma Thurman is fabulous in a cameo as the scorned wife of one of Joe’s myriad lovers. Initially presenting as meek and mild, Thurman’s Mrs H ultimately unleashes a fit of seething anger in what is a terrific scene. Meanwhile, Shia LaBeouf plays one of the few recurring characters in Jerome who, having taken Joe’s virginity, is the only person other than her father with whom Joe makes any kind of emotional connection. Unfortunately, LaBeouf’s performance is irritating and self-conscious, as though he is trying too hard to be taken seriously, almost to the point of parodying himself. Meanwhile, Jamie Bell is chillingly detached as Joe’s S&M master and it is good to see Christian Slater (as Joe’s father) in something other than the straight-to-DVD schlock he has been churning out recently.
Whilst volume one is the superior of the two parts – repetition and a distinct lack of sympathy for Joe’s plight hamper the second volume – it is a segment towards the end of the film in which Joe is working as a debt collector that is actually one of the most interesting narratives in her story. Willem Dafoe features here as Joe’s mentor of sorts, while another first time feature film performer in Mia Goth is mesmerising as the duplicitous P. Visually, the film is stark, a reflection of Joe’s emotionless engagement with the various men who infiltrate her life and body, while Von Trier’s use of music, often in total contrast to what we are seeing, is as effective as it is unexpected, with the likes of Rammstein, Steppenwolf and Talking Heads amongst the eclectic choices.
Seligman is intellectual and analytical in his evaluation of Joe’s stories, tempering her tales of a self-destructive sexual appetite with abstract digressions about all manner of things, from fly fishing to classical music to religious iconography. It is hard to know whether Von Trier was attempting to satirise, philosophise or intellectualise with this film and perhaps he has accomplished all three to some extent. As infuriating as some moments are, there is much to like and ultimately Nymphomaniac presents as the work of a director who simply refuses to pander to any of the populist conventions that pervade the film production landscape.