Nymphomaniac film poster slice
Lars von Trier’s latest film, Nymphomaniac, confirms his dual role as one of contemporary cinema’s leading auteur/provocateurs.
The version of Nymphomaniac recently released for North American screenings (and now showing at the Vancity Theatre on selected dates until the end of March) has been divided into two feature length films, “Volume I” and “Volume II” – a thoughtful arrangement that provides audiences with an opportunity to catch their collective breath between Volumes; some might even choose to abandon the ordeal altogether during the intermission.
And many viewers will consider Nymphomaniac to be an ordeal. The film’s advance marketing quotes reviewer Xan Brooks of the Guardian, who warns prospective viewers – and here is where the “provocateur” comes in – to “Hang on to your seat back, your Bible, or the hand of a friend. Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac bludgeons the body and tenderises the soul.” You go in to the theatre braced for extremes: visual, emotional, psychological; you go, perhaps, expecting some form of catharsis. If you’re like me, though, you will emerge, some four and a half hours later, disappointed.
First a warning – probably unnecessary given the name of the film: Nymphomaniac contains many sexually explicit scenes (although a note in the credits assures viewers that “The professional actors did not have penetrative sex” – a specialized chore that was presumably assigned to the half-dozen or so credited “sex doubles”).
Nymphomaniac opens with Seligman (played by Stellan Skarsgård) returning from a trip to the corner store. He discovers Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) bleeding and unconscious, sprawled in a labyrinthine brick-walled alley, the apparent victim of an assailant. He takes her back to his apartment to tend to her wounds, but when he attempts to call the police to report the assault, Joe refuses to allow him, insisting that “It was all my fault.” He wraps her in a blanket, bundles her into bed for warmth, makes her a steaming mug of tea, and listens sympathetically as she relates her life story: how she came to be the woman – the self-diagnosed “nymphomaniac” of the title – that she is today. The entire film, then – Joe’s sexual autobiography – is told in flashback.
As we listen to and watch Joe’s account of her life we learn that she was raised by a father (played by Christian Slater) whom she adores, but who remains something of an enigma to her (and to the audience). Joe’s mother was cold and distant – but that upbringing does not by itself explain (at least it did not explain to me) Joe’s determined, life-long stance against love – more specifically, against “a love fixated society” (the film’s tag line is “Forget about love”).
We watch as the younger Joe (played by Stacy Martin) asks Jerôme (played by Shia LaBoeuf) to help her lose her virginity; Jerôme rather nonchalantly (and perfunctorily) obliges – and then resumes working on his motorcycle. We watch as Joe accepts a dare from her friend B to enter into a competition: the winner being the one who can seduce the most men during a day-long trip by train (the prize “a bag of sweeties”). We listen as Joe recalls a time in her life when her goal was to achieve “ten daily satisfactions” – a goal which created a scheduling nightmare made even more complicated by the fact that she was also holding down a full time job. And so on.
The various stages of Joe’s sexual odyssey are broken into eight chapters, many with enigmatic titles (“The Compleat Angler”; “The Little Organ School”; “The Eastern and the Western Church”) – concluding with Chapter 8: “The Gun” (and most of you will, I suspect, recall what Chekhov had to say about the presence of a gun on stage).
I suspect that, for many adolescent males, the term “nymphomaniac” conjured up a nebulous creature who was more than half mythological, a creature as fantastical as a centaur, or a unicorn, one which they would be more likely to find in their dreams than in reality. The film Nymphomaniac was, then, an opportunity for von Trier to reclaim both the term and the condition, to bring this mythic creature into the realm of flesh and blood, to provide her with a believable back story, and understandable motives. If that was, in fact, his goal, then he has failed, since the characters of Nymphomaniac (and this, to me, is the single biggest flaw in the film) are little more than pawns whose sole purpose is to be moved about a cinematic chess board, completely subject to the director/writer/auteur/provocateur’s wishes and theories. They are, in short, anything but autonomous beings, and Joe and Seligman, the film’s “talking heads,” feel like a pair of artificial constructs who have been created simply to represent and express opposite ends of an abstract sexual spectrum.
It could be argued that von Trier is attempting to explore (however imperfectly and, to my mind: unsuccessfully) a feminist perspective in Nymphomaniac: Joe is depicted as a woman in charge of her own sexuality, defiant in the face of all attempts to treat her condition as something to apologize for. It is not fair to criticize Nymphomaniac as “unrealistic” since it was never intended to be a realistic film. But neither does Nymphomaniac completely succeed as a film of ideas: the beliefs that von Trier may have intended to serve as an armature for the film remain elusive and obscure.
For me Nymphomaniac disappoints because it feels like a decline from von Trier’s best work: his 1996 film Breaking The Waves, which demonstrated what can happen when all of the elements – story, cinematography, performance – combine to produce a work that moves us profoundly and unexpectedly. With Breaking The Waves von Trier proved that he has the ability to make us feel; with Nymphomaniac he has only succeeded in making us think.