Director: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbough, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem DaFoe, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mia Goth
Written by: Lars Von Trier
Running Time – Vol 1: 118 mins Vol 2: 123 mins
Release date: 22nd February 2014 (One Night Stand) General release: 28th February 2014
Lars Von Trier is one of the most controversial directors of our time. He is a great provocateur, a man willing to push the boundaries of cinema, reaping praise and disgust in equal measure. He is that rare beast of a man who, even when he’s not making films, he is causing a love him/loath him attitude but whatever you think of him as a human being, you cannot help but admire the fact that he is willing to take chances, to risk offending in order to make people talk about his work. So after the horrors of AntiChrist and the weirdness of Melachonlia, Von Triers brings us Nymphomaniac, a four-hour epic split into two volumes, dealing with female sexuality, desire and fantasy. It is shocking, brutal, funny and flawed. It is also his most accessible pieces of work to date.
Joe is found battered and bruised, lying in an alleyway by Seligman, who takes her in to look after her. She starts to recount the story of her life, that of a “bad person” as she describes herself, a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac, from her early years as a teenager, losing her virginity to Jerome, a young man who is constantly linked in some way throughout her tale, to becoming a “sex addict” and how it affected her and her mental state, the jobs she kept and the people who came into her life. All the while, her story is questioned by Seligman, who links them to art, novels and music.
Before you get excited and think that this is a four-hour, hard-core porn movie for the masses, think again. While it relies heavily on sex and the sexual act and it is very explicit, this is not a pornographic film. Sex plays a very important part but it is not the by all and end all. In fact, it is more about the human condition, about using it as an escape, a form of reading people. It is not erotica and titillating in the least. In fact there are some scenes that are incredibly hard to watch and while the act of love-making maybe a sweet and tender thing, the act here isn’t about love but sometimes the need to survive.
What is surprising about this film is the humour. Von Trier isn’t a man who brings us big laughs but here it is very much present, as if we need that light relief (and boy do we need it) because this is a tough journey, thankfully split into two halves. Joe is a manipulator. She tells her tale to Seligman, using objects around his shabby room to give each section a title, from mirrors, to music, even to a stain on the wall. Told in flashback, we follow her route from shy young, inexperience girl to playing games on a train with her best friend, B, meeting up with her first, Jerome, something that occurs throughout her story, to how her father’s ill-health sends her longing for sex as a means of expressing her grief.
Volume 1 is full of life and a much lighter part, whereas Volume 2 deals with much deeper and darker subject matters and the change in pace and tone hits you quite hard. Joe’s inability to function properly as a woman leads to places that will both shock and abhor and in one particular scene, makes you wince in horror. What is such a pity is that the film’s final chapter does let the rest of the film down, in which a much older and more experienced Joe, whose life of sex has left her ragged, becomes part of a debt collecting gang and she takes on an apprentice. This sequence is certainly the weakest but is necessary to link the beginning. Von Trier manages to pull it back with an ending that is both satisfying and shocking and incredibly ambiguous.
The performances are a mixed bag. Charlotte Gainsbough, as the older Joe, is good, conveying a woman who has seen everything, done everything with conviction. Most of her scenes are with the always excellent Stellan Skarsgard, as Seligman and they alone could have been in a movie all to themselves, full of antidotes and comparisons to fly fishing, Bach and James Bond. Some of these musings work, others are a little too pretentious. Uma Thurman almost steals the show as Mrs H, a woman scorned by her husband’s decision to leave her for the younger Joe. A brilliantly constructed scene full of pathos, it’s also an extremely funny scene helped by Ms Thurman’s manic performance.
The other surprise is Christian Slater as Joe’s father. In a heartbreaking sequence, which leaves his dignity in tatters, he is magnificent and moving. Jamie Bell manages to mix menace with a hint of tenderness as a sadist who Joe encounters. If there is a huge off-kilter performance, it comes from Shia LaBeouf as Jerome. With the weirdest English accent this side of Dick Van Dyke and especially after his bizarre behaviour of late, involving a paper bag, it’s just doesn’t sit right among the good things this film has to offer.
Thankfully, there’s newcomer Stacy Martin, who manages to hold everything nicely together as Joe, mixing vulnerability with pure sexuality and innocence. We follow her through a 15 year period and we see her character grow and grow. It is a terrific debut and I get the feeling we will be seeing a lot more of her in the future (if we haven’t seen enough of her here, already).
As with all of Von Trier’s films, it will divide the audiences. Some will absolutely hate it and think it is nothing but filth and degrading, while others will intellect about it and questions its content. I found the whole thing a fascinating, if exhausting journey that threw up so many different emotions. I hated it, I loved it, I loathed it, I felt dirty, I felt inspired. I was also glad for the experience and it is one that I would be willing to take again, if only to see if those self-same feelings return. Nymphomaniac is a masterpiece, if flawed and one of the most challenging pieces of cinema I have seen in years.