VOD film review: Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier)
Chris Blohm | On 01, Mar 2014
Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf
Big things usually come in small packages. As the latest film from the Cannes-baiting director of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, the arrival of Nymphomaniac can easily be categorised as a very big thing indeed. And its package? Bursting at the zip, apparently. So much so it needs two entire films, with a runtime of 241 minutes, to ram the message home. That’s a mighty package. But does it deliver the goods? Well, yes, but only sporadically.
Barging in after the exquisite one-two of Antichrist (fairy tale as metaphor for therapy) and Melancholia (apocalypse as metaphor for depression) Nymphomaniac feels like Lars von Trier’s least artful film for a while (although there’s technical pizazz, courtesy of some genital-compositing-type trickery). But it’s also his most playful and petulant since The Idiots. In short, a raggedy voodoo doll of ideas, constantly stabbing itself in the face, and sewn together with pseudo-literary pretensions.
The film dives shamelessly and repeatedly into the sodden depths of pulp. There are moments that resemble a saucy soap opera. Other scenes (as when the film turns into an existentialist lesbian take on Leon in Volume II) play like Tales of the Unexpected, or a darker, more sadistic version of Confessions of a Window Cleaner. Like Shia LaBeouf’s unintentionally deranged attempt at a British accent, it’s slightly all over the place. In the context of the von Trier filmography, Nymphomaniac fits in like a drunk at a wedding. Which basically makes it John Hurt in Melancholia: cheeky, cantankerous, and heavily intoxicated.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the epic David Lean running time (“Lawrence of My Labia”, to quote Sex and the City 2) then it might have had a shot at becoming von Trier’s first ever proper Midnight Movie. It’s certainly fun enough. The film even secures some vague rock ‘n’ roll credentials by bookending each of its respective volumes with a hefty slab of gut-wrenching metal courtesy of German rockers Rammstein.
This concession to nerdery is very von Trier; he’s an internationally-acclaimed art-house juggernaut, and all-round kingpin of the festival circuit, but he’d rather brand himself as the greasy-haired kid at the back of the class, outcast and alone, unapologetically excavating the content of his nasal cavity and flinging it at an unsympathetic world.
His film revels in this kind of adolescent contradiction and misdirection. Even the structure is a lie: Volume 1 is chunked into five individual chapters, Volume 2 has three. Each of these chapters tells a story from the life of Joe (the titular sex addict heroically played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), as told to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a mysterious, monk-like bachelor who finds Joe bruised and battered in an alleyway.
Volume 2 picks up immediately where Volume 1 leaves off. There is absolutely no pretence from von Trier that the films exist as separate entities – this is one film, split right down the middle, but you pay for it twice. Format as exploitation, which probably titillates the director no end.
The film’s second illusion is subject. Despite being marketed as some kind of orgasmic symphony, Nymphomaniac isn’t so much a film about sex, or sex addiction, as it is about Lars von Trier himself. The dialogue between Joe and Seligman feels like an external manifestation of the internal conversation going on inside the filmmaker’s head. Joe recounts her assorted scrapes, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Seligman listens, offers commentary and rationale.
Like Antichrist and Melancholia, this is cinema as therapy, though this time around, the analogy’s so on the nose that it borders on self-flagellation. Why else would von Trier reference his own films so explicitly? There’s one particular scene in Nymphomaniac that recalls a controversial moment in Antichrist with such clunkiness it feels like parody. Like Joe, and her neverending odyssey into physical pleasure, the director just can’t help himself. Oh, Lars.