After years of speculation and anticipation, it’s finally here - Danish hell-raiser Lars von Trier’s four-hour, two-part sex epic ‘Nymphomaniac’. The controversial choice of subject manner, the exceptional international cast and the reputation of the provocative director have garnered this film more attention than a foreign film usually receives, and as each tantalising image and clip was released, the intrigue about exactly what von Trier was up to continued to build. And now we finally have the chance to see whether the anticipation was worth it, or if the acclaimed director has finally bitten off more than he can chew.
One evening, while walking home to his small apartment, Seligman (Stellen Skarsgård) comes across a woman beaten and bleeding in an alley. He takes her home, makes her a cup of tea and puts her to bed. She tells him that her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and when Seligman asks her how she came to be in this position, she begins to tell him the story of her life, one dominated by her insatiable desire for sexual pleasure. Over the course of eight themed chapters, she steps through the encounters, experiences and complications that have defined her and her nymphomania, both an act of self-destruction and empowerment.
After the gruellingly emotional experiences of his previous two superb films, ‘Antichrist’ (2009) and ‘Melancholia’ (2011), it comes as a complete surprise that ‘Nymphomaniac’ is as thoroughly enjoyable a film as it is. Even at four hours, the film breezes along with an unexpected bouncy rhythm, bolstered by genuine humour and heart. It also breaks away from the stylistic choices that have become trademarks of von Trier’s work. The hand-held Dogme ’95 style is kept to a surprising minimum, replaced by carefully framed and often luscious cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro. The slow-motion prologues that became a signature of his last two films are also absent, and while his use of cinematic techniques are still as inventive and unusual as ever, there is a surprising level of restraint about von Trier’s work here. His choice of subject suggested the Mad Dane could end up being provocative for the sake of it, but the provocations in the film are more intellectual than a subject of taste. Sex has been used as an integral part of a narrative before (such as in Steve McQueen’s 2011 masterpiece ‘Shame’), but rarely has a film actively been so about sex. The visual sexual content is of course explicit, but it never dominates the film, becomes actively arousing or detracts from the ideas the film is exploring. Joe is our focus on a hero journey through this quest for sexual understanding, with an openness to explore as many different sexual experiences as she can, many taboo, but always in the pursuit of greater understanding. Lars von Trier’s screenplay cracks with tremendous wit, particularly in the scenes between the highly experiential Joe and the highly intellectual Seligman. There’s always an air of not taking the subject of sex that seriously, and refreshingly so, taking advantage of its emotional and comic potential. The film has a very classical feel to it, which makes sense with its structure. The editing is considered and easy to digest, the music is mostly motifs from great classical music, and the London setting gives it a feeling of being both foreign and familiar. The production design is spot-on as it travels through nearly four decades, and the period texture only makes the film a more distinct, enjoyable and provocative experience.
As expected from a Lars von Trier film, the performances are uniformly fantastic. Both Gainsbourg and Skarsgård crackle with delight every moment they are on screen together. After being taken to hell and back twice in his last two films, it’s nice to see a lighter side to Charlotte Gainsbourg, but always with the same level of emotional and physical commitment we’ve come to expect from her. Skarsgård is gloriously charming and bumbling as the overly-enthusiastic intellectual, giving Gainsbourg plenty to bounce off as the "experience" to his "innocence". Also impressive is Stacy Martin as Young Joe in Volume 1, who dominates the screen with her easy sexuality and charm, and the same fearless commitment as Gainsbourg. Shia LaBeouf does an admirable job as Jerome, the man Joe continues to return to by coincidence, though his accent is often very off. The supporting cast is as equally impressive as the leads, with Willam Defoe, Connie Nielson, Christian Slater, Udo Kier and Mia Goth popping their heads in for memorable moments. Jamie Bell is totally arresting as K, a young man who allows women to engage with their more masochistic desires. His is the most sexually-charged performance of any of the men in the film, even without ever taking his clothes off. The true scene-stealer though is Uma Thurman as Mrs. H, the wife of a man Young Joe is having an affair with. Her chapter of the film is one of the funniest and one of the most powerful, an operatic moment of melodrama that ends up being a major highlight of a film with more highlights than you can count.
Sex has been used as an integral part of a narrative before, but rarely has a film actively been so about sex.
There a moments, flashes of the cheeky l’enfant terrible we’ve grown to know and love, provocative observations on political correctness and the female experience of sex as opposed to the male, and the ending will come as a sudden and unexpected bucket of cold water over your head, but this is Lars von Trier at his most considered and careful. ‘Nymphomaniac’, for all the hype about its sexual content, is a far more entertaining and thoughtful film than most were probably expecting, and in the end probably a far more satisfying one. It asks us to question our relationship with our bodies in a way that a film hasn’t done so in a very long time, to engage with ourselves and our desires and to not dismiss them as immoral or embarrassing. This is one of those rare cinematic events that totally delivers, worthy of all the anticipation. He might drive us all mad, but Lars von Trier is one of the most important and exhilarating filmmakers in the world, and ‘Nymphomaniac’ is another jewel in his already very heavy crown.
For the Australian release, Transmission Films has chosen to show both volumes of ‘Nymphomaniac’ as a single feature, with a short interval in between. The commercial release is the edited four-hour cut as opposed to Lars von Trier’s five-hour director's cut, which was prepared with his approval but without his involvement. This is the same version that is being released in all other territories. Transmission plan to release his director's cut at a later date.