Nymphomaniac is the concluding part of Lars Von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy”, his loosely-linked set of films in which he explores mental illness, metaphysics, constructs of femininity, and new ways of winding his audience up.
Von Trier’s preferred edit is apparently a five-and-a-half hour long film. The version currently being rolled out is more of a compromise: two volumes lasting two hours each. We were lucky enough to score tickets to the first UK screening of both volumes back-to-back, an event which the distribution company elected to promote via a fun reference to co-star Shia LaBeouf’s ongoing public meltdown:
When I got to my seat, I found my bag:
(Perhaps fortunately, Uma Thurman was not one of the cast members in attendance.)
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the titular Joe, who is found beaten senseless in a back alley by Stellen Skarsgaard’s Seligman. Over the course of a night she relates, in episodic form, the key events in her life that lead her to his door. Each episode comes numbered and titled on screen, and each one explores a different facet of her nymphomania – she pointedly eschews the term ‘sex addict’.
The framing structure is great, and the dialogue between Joe and Seligman is without doubt the great strength of the movie. Seligman’s responses to each tall tale are each based on his own esoteric interests, from Bach’s polyphonic chorales to the nuances of fly fishing technique. His Asperger-y take on things elicits increasingly deadpan responses from a clearly irritated Joe. After a somewhat irrelevant anecdote about mountain-climbing knots she sighs “I think that’s your weakest digression yet”.
That’s right: Von Trier has delivered a four hour art-house satire of mansplaining.
(later on, Stellen Skarsgaard would helpfully reinforce this theme by answering any questions directed at his female co-stars. Thanks Stellen!)
Framing narrative aside, the best parts are Chapter One: The Compleat Angler, a tale about trying to get laid as many times as possible on a single train journey, and Chapter Three: Mrs H, a story about the difficulties of juggling multiple affairs at once. In Mrs H events crash to the ground when a wronged wife shows up, kids in tow. This is the Uma Thurman scene. She has never been better, and scores the best line in Volume I as she enquires with a fixed grin: “May I show the children the whoring bed?” The audience roared with delight.
In all these early chapters the young Joe is played by Stacy Martin, mostly with a dead-eyed lack of affect. We should probably assume this is deliberate as the flat performance matches the flat lighting that the flashbacks are mainly filmed in. The eurosleaze vibe is perfectly captured.
Both The Compleat Angler and Mrs H arrive in Volume I, which is why Volume II seems so unsatisfying in comparison. The action is more repetitive, the jokes less successful (or just absent, the sense of humour being so sly that its always possible you are just missing something). Instead of the playful bad taste that dominated Volume I, we have endless scenes of Billy Elliot punching Charlotte Gainsbourg in the face and whipping all the skin off her buttocks. This is probably supposed to feel breathtakingly transgressive. In fact, it is really very boring, livened only by wondering what Jamie Bell is going to be like as The Thing (at least we now know he can throw a left hook).
Then the final chapter comes along, which is suddenly like a different film altogether – and a much more dangerous one. The audience became audibly hushed, and the silence was broken only by one guy near me standing up and walking out. This part isn’t bad, despite having the overall feel of a mid-90s “erotic thriller”. However, the sharp narrative swerve into it after three and half hours had already gone by seemed to leave the audience nonplussed, and the new ideas presented don’t really have time to breathe.
The split in quality isn’t absolute: there’s also bad stuff in Volume I (e.g. Christian Slater’s endless death scene, involving screaming, restraints, and the need to mop up his faeces), and good stuff in Volume II; namely the epilogue. It’s in these final two minutes that Von Trier finds his sense of humour again, retrospectively turns the entire four hours into a shaggy dog set-up for a joke, and gleefully shows two fingers to the audience. After so much variable quality, it’s a relief that Von Trier manages to end on such a killer line, before sliding into Charlotte Gainsbourg’s elegiac cover of Hey Joe.
The movie is full of Von Trier’s habitual attempts to associate himself with high art, partly in seriousness and partly just so as to annoy critics and cultural gatekeepers. At one point Seligman claims that while he himself may be a virgin, he can relate to stories of sexuality because he’s read both The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron – both of course highly esteemed bawdy portmanteau tales. Von Trier, you suspect, would be happy to to have his work considered alongside them, perhaps even happier to provoke reviewers to angrily insist upon a gulf of difference. There are also numerous references to Tarkovsky – who is once again thanked in the credits – including a icon on the wall which Seligman identifies as “a copy of a Rublev”, a chapter entitled “Mirror”, and the general look of Seligman’s apartment which recalls the home of the title character in Stalker. As he showed in Antichrist, it’s clear that Von Trier both loves Tarkovsky and hates most other people who venerate him: this is some A-grade cinephile trolling.
If we accept Seligman/Von Trier’s invitation, and compare Nymphomaniac to The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, we can agree that like them it is something of a mixed bag. Volume I mostly succeeds, Volume II mostly doesn’t, and I suspect that overall there’s a really good three-hour movie here trying to get out.
There’s one other aspect to Nymphomaniac that requires discussion, as it is simultaneously one of the best things and one of the worst things about the entire movie. Shia LaBeouf is in this, playing Joe’s recurring lover and shadow, Jerome. He is truly dreadful in a number of ways, including his line readings (awesomely unconvincing) and general demeanour (fascinatingly gormless).
His performance is most obviously catastrophic, however, in his choice of accent. It starts somewhere in Essex, jumps to New Zealand, then starts working its way back via Australia, South Africa, and then any number of mysterious undiscovered lands. It’s not impossible that this is deliberate – after all the story is set in a weird location somewhere between 1970s Finland, 1980s Britain, and the eurotrash continent of Antoine de Caunes. His accent hits peak Britishness when he has to count out money, perhaps as the local currency is sterling and the sight of the Queen’s face and presence of the word “quid” in the dialogue seems to help him back on track.
Nonetheless whenever he’s called upon to deliver some particularly ludicrous lines the cumulative effect of accent, performance and not-entirely-serious script drew some of the evening’s most enthusiastic laughter – particularly when he sadly insists that he has “a tiger” on his hands, and “would like some help feeding it”. As amusingly bad as this is, you can’t sustain a four hour movie by pointing and laughing at one of its principal actors, so on balance I would say that this casting choice failed.
In summary, perhaps they should have got Topher Grace to both edit down the movie by about 35% and also replace Shia LaBeouf. Nymphomaniac is a stumble after the more focused lyricism of Antichrist and Melancholia, but it has more than its share of moments. It manages to drop and re-find the ball a number of times, but just about works as a whole and in its current edit. It’s still certainly a much better movie than the superficially similarly-themed Shame. Is this movie feminist? Only in the most general sense that it seems designed to provoke a feminist response in the audience, one way or another. Which is pretty much what you’d expect from this director. Is it misogynist? No.
Anyway: if you buy a ticket for Nymphomaniac, you’ll see a lot of memorable bits.
(But four Shias out of five for ludicrousness, and there’s something to be said for that.)