Nymphomaniac Vols. I & II
Denmark (2013) Dir. Lars von Trier
After upsetting everyone with Anti-Christ and baffling us with Melancholia, to complete his Depression Trilogy, Danish provocateur and enfant terrible Lars von Trier announced he would make a porn film.
Despite what you may have heard, Nymphomaniac is more than a porn film. Yes, it has some sexually explicit shots, most of which last no more than two or three seconds; yes, it features disturbing images of sado masochism; and yes, the main character refers to her lady parts with the “c” word. But the reality is that this is more an exploration into the whys and wherefores of sexual addiction and the effects it has the addicts and the people around them.
The story – split across two films – centres around Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is found beaten and unconscious in the street by lonely bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He takes her to his home to rest, where Joe tells Seligman her life story as a sex addict.
The film is broken up into chronological chapters, beginning with Joe allegedly becoming sexual aware at aged two (!) before teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) loses her virginity to a random older boy named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) with whom as an adult she would later have a son, Marcel. In between these developments we chart Joe’s sexual growth, alongside her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), including a wager during on a train journey as to who can score the most men, the prize being a bag of sweets!
After falling out with B, Joe creates a cadre of lovers to satisfy her needs before meeting up with Jerôme again, the one person who she doesn’t sleep with during this period. After a second split, Joe returns to her wild ways, during which period her father (Christian Slater) dies leaving her empty. Joe and Jerôme reunite and have Marcel, but Joe (now played by Gainsbourg) is no longer stimulated, seeking her thrills via more extreme methods, including brutal S&M sessions with K (Jamie Bell). Finally Joe ends up working as a debt collector for L (Willem Dafoe) and becomes involved with her young apprentice, P (Mia Goth), but fate is just waiting to deal its most devastating blow yet.
There have been accusations of pretension levied towards this film which would no doubt come from Seligman’s unique interpretation of Joe’s tales, applying some rather incongruous and leftfield sophistry as to why he thinks Joe isn’t the monster she claims she is. Mathematics, fly fishing, classic music, even pastry make up Seligman’s arguments, which will either make some kind of abstract intellectual sense or will appear like von Trier is taking the mickey with cod philosophy. However von Trier also has to reflect Joe’s rationale on these moments which will prove contentious for some.
For example, debt collector Joe pleasures a paedophile client but she explains that he was a harmless paedophile because he was one of the 95% who only had the desires but never acted on them like the other 5%. Is this von Trier defending paedophilia, trying to put a “positive spin” on it or trying to make us understand these people more? Indeed this is the question that hovers over the intent of the entire film but as ever it is up to us to figure it up as von Trier isn’t going to tell us.
The truth about the sex scenes is that they are largely functional, rarely stimulating or erotic, while the explicit stuff is arguably gratuitous, they employed either prosthetics or professional stand-ins. Granted the S&M images are gruesome and this may be shocking for a mainstream film but the focus is heavily in favour of the storytelling. If anything the anachronisms in the flashback scenes are more distracting – like modern five pound notes appearing in the 1980’s or how only Joe dresses for the period while the men all sport current hair styles! And Shia LaBeouf’s dodgy British accent!
While numerous familiar faces crop up across the two films in either big or small roles this is about the two central performances of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin. French newcomer Martin is a difficult one to rate as her delivery is wooden, almost robotic, and her presence is stiff and lifeless, thanks to her thin bony face and eyes that look half asleep. While she convinces as a teen, as a young woman not so much; yet she is at her most dynamic and expressive during the sex scenes. Her pivotal moment comes when her father passes away and she immediately seeks solace by romping with a hospital worker, during which the pain and suffering hits her in a hauntingly emotional scene. This is one truly bold role to make your debut in.
Gainsbourg once again demonstrates her utter trust in von Trier to allow herself to be used, abused and exposed in ways beyond even Anti-Christ while somehow remaining a darling of the mainstream. She is able to make Joe vulnerable yet unpleasant, understandable yet perplexing; how Gainsbourg isn’t emotionally damaged after making this film I don’t know. This is a committed performance to say the least.
Keen eyed viewers will also note von Trier referencing the opening sequence from Anti-Christ when on a snowy night, unattended baby Marcel plays with the snow by an open window…
Frankly, I found Nymphomaniac the most accessible of the Depression Trilogy despite the occasional moments of discomfort and contentious themes. It is very well made, convincingly acted and contains many von Trier quirks, delivering an oddly compelling and an irrevocably esoteric and challenging look at a taboo subject. The four hours flew by and the characters are fascinating in their own way but whether von Trier accomplished what he wanted to with this film is subjective, as is whether the needed to be so confrontational about it with the explicit imagery.
Whatever you feel about von Trier’s films, one they are not is instantly forgettable!