For years, Lars von Trier has threatened to deliver his take on an “erotic” movie. The plucky provocateur has always brought an exploitation filmmaker’s chutzpah and showmanship to his career. Backed by a delightfully nasty ad campaign and the promise of X-rated director’s cuts with CG-inserted porn star naughty bits, ‘Nymphomaniac’ thankfully proves to be a more thoughtful and satisfying drama than a sleazy skin flick (at least in the rated version). The two-part, four-hour picture isn’t von Trier’s most satisfying effort, nor is it his most ambitious. However, as usual with the filmmaker’s post-‘Breaking the Waves’ output, you’ll come for the shock value and stay for the insightful human drama.
As long promised, the film tells a life story through the endless sexual exploits of a nymphomaniac. More specifically, it’s the tale of von Trier’s favorite tortured female, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who in the first scene is discovered beaten and destroyed in a lonely alley by von Trier’s favorite creep Stellan Skarsgard (well, maybe his second favorite creep after Udo Kier, who sadly only makes a cameo in this one).
Skarsgard is an intellectual and a virgin who serves as an audience surrogate while listening to Gainsbourg’s life story as she tries to heal up in his bed. It starts with her life as a teen nymphette (Stacy Martin, who’s sure to catch some attention for her first role), playing twisted games like “Who can sleep with the most men on a train?” with her friends while avoiding any sense of emotional attachment in favor of endless orgasms with strangers. The closest thing to the love of her life is Shia Labeouf’s cocky cockney wiseass, who takes her virginity as a teen and eventually fathers her child. (Despite a pretty horrendous accent, the professional plagiarist and non-celebrity is actually quite good.) The split between the two films comes as the protagonist leaves her 20s and Gainsbourg takes over the role full time. However, that split is also determined by more than just running time.
Much like von Trier’s sadly overlooked ‘Melancholia‘, ‘Nymphomaniac’ is a single story told in two tonally different halves. The first half is pitched toward black comedy. The director is having naughty fun and inviting audiences along for the ride. The tales, while often devastating, are all laced with impish bleak humor (especially Uma Thurman’s hysterical role as a distraught mother-of-three who pops up to harass and hurt Martin for destroying her marriage in painfully funny ways). Even when the episodic narrative isn’t itself funny, von Trier goofs around with the Gainsbourg/Skarsgard linking scenes. Skarsgard hilariously over intellectualizes and analyzes all of Gainsbourg’s stories throughout. At times, it feels like the director is gently satirizing critics who over-analyze his work. At other times, it feels like the two characters represent the two halves of von Trier’s filmmaking brain battling for the control of the movie. Gainsbourg represents his emotionally-driven human storytelling side, and Skarsgard stands in for his arty intellectual side. Either way, the first half of the film is surprisingly playful and amusing, despite the subject matter and impending sense of doom. Then, much like ‘Melancholia’, the second movie starts and the fun promptly stops.
‘Nymphomaniac Vol. 2’ picks up with Gainsbourg as a married mother still unable to control her carnal urges. The small semblance of a normal life she clings to gradually dissipates into a dark journey of sexual obsession. Jamie Bell appears as a professional sadist who unlocks Gainsbourg’s latent masochism. Willem Dafoe pops in to provide a seedy profession for our heroine, and all manner of deviant sexuality gets a moment in front of von Trier’s jiggling cameras in the protagonist’s dark decade of the soul.
Even the Gainsbourg/Starsgard sequences turn harrowing as the flashbacks catch up to the present. ‘Nymphomaniac’ eventually transforms into the type of harshly melodramatic tragedy that we’ve come to expect from this filmmaker since the ’90s, and it’s as painfully disturbing as anything he’s ever made. As usual, von Trier has pulled a bait-and-switch. Audiences get suckered into ‘Nymphomaniac’ in search of a little skin (even the rated version has sequences and images that would never have made it to screen with any other director calling the shots), but end up caught is a tragic tale that is anything but sexy.
In many ways, the film feels like von Trier’s magnum opus. That’s not just in terms of sheer length, but also in the ways it combines so many of the thematic obsessions, technical experiments, and familiarly stunt-cast faces von Trier has toyed with throughout his career. However, it’s still not his best film, even if it is his most all-encompassing. As extraordinary as the performances are, as devastating as the experience feels, and as intellectually rich as the screenplay is, an undeniable sense that von Trier’s been here before sets in. The themes of patriarchal control, the inherent cruelty of humanity, the ridiculous sickness of sexual desire, and poisonously uncontrollable self-destruction have all been explored by the director elsewhere in films as diverse as ‘Breaking the Waves’, ‘Dogville’, ‘Antichrist’, ‘Dancer in the Dark’ and ‘Melancholia’.
However, that’s not the same as saying the film is a tiresome, repetitive exercise for its director. Far from it, ‘Nymphomaniac’ is as potent, intriguing and moving of a film as von Trier has ever made. It’s just not his grand masterpiece or even his most punishing, button-pushing effort as the hype-machine suggests. (That first title is still up for debate, but the second title belongs ‘Antichrist‘). It’s an undeniably fascinating effort from one of the most consistently fascinating filmmakers working today, and as such qualifies as vital viewing.