Much of the cinematic infamy surrounding the release of Nymphomaniac recalls the same bated breath that preceded Eyes Wide Shut back in 1999. Stanley Kubrick took full advantage of celebrity-cult culture and used it against the audience: clever marketing implied extremely explicit sex scenes between then Hollywood sweethearts Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise but after piling into cinemas, movie goers were confronted by a movie that was not about to let its audience feast their eyes on a carnal incarnation of their celebrity-crazed fantasies. It presented a more alienating but earnest look at the way we view films promising indulgence of the flesh. I couldn’t expect Von Trier to echo these insights directly but with such audacious and confident marketing in the pre-release posters (shots of the cast showing off their O-faces) I imagined Von Trier would similarly askew and mock our preconceived ideas about cinema; art and sex. What I got instead was a smorgasbord of non-sequiturs that seemed to faff around a plethora of loosely related ideas and themes.
A woman recounts her erotic experiences to an older bachelor who saved her life after a severe beating.
I have an uneasy suspicion that the majority of even the most loyal followers of Von Trier’s bold filmmaking will find this final chapter in the Depression Trilogy (following Antichrist and Melancholia) a little less than satisfactory. Nymphomaniac’s gimmick is of course its promise of uninhibited sex, and the director’s unique style, but something is amiss in the first part of this 4 hour sexual epic. This film is best recommended for an audience member that is incredibly determined to see how far Von Trier has tried to push his cinematic confines.
The Bottom Line
Nymphomaniac involves something of a leap of faith, because it’s entirely possible that the first volume will leave the viewer uninterested in proceeding to the second. Despite the provocative title and explicit subject matter, Nymphomaniac is a disaffecting film and, in Volume I, often a dull one. It uses the enticement of explicit sex between legitimate actors (achieved through digital trickery) as a Trojan horse to introduce an array of themes about cruelty, power, emotional manipulation and depression, all perennial Von Trier obsessions and all of them presented with a dreary monotony that is only fitfully enlivened by some of the film’s performances. The title character’s sexual exploits certainly don’t energise the film.
Like many of von Trier’s films, Nymphomaniac is divided into chapters with titles. They are the subheadings of the story that the title character, Joe (played mostly by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg), tells to the elderly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) after he finds her lying beaten and bloody in the street. She refuses to let him call the police or an ambulance but accepts the offer of a cup of tea at his home, where the bookish recluse listens to her tale and responds as best he can. The film’s narrative then meanders into a sort of sexual biography of what has lead Joe to her sorry state: since childhood, Joe explains over a series of flashbacks, she’s been a sex-obsessed, love-allergic debauchee with a need to rack up as many erotic experiences as possible, satisfying or no. It all comes across as a published sketchbook of ideas, some of which were more ready for publication than others. Despite some interesting bits here and there (look out for the scene where Uma Thurman shows her children the ‘whoring bed’) the whole tapestry never comes together and the sex gimmick does very little to redeem the material precisely because Von Trier chose to deaden the erotic scenes and make them extremely clinical.
Nymphomaniac trudges around Von Trier’s psychosexual marsh without ease and the rather disappointing visuals do nothing to create the same wonder that existed in his previous outings. However, what turns things up a notch are the performances. Uma Thurman gives a knock-out 10 minute scene that stays with you long after the film is over and despite Shia LeBeouf becoming more of a Hollywood punch-line these days, he gives quite a satisfactory performance.
Unfortunately what lets the whole caboodle down is the lack of energy; the bombastic sense of seeing something completely different, which I’ve become accustomed to with many of Von Trier’s previous films. Everything he has done, from the quickly abandoned Dogma “vow of chastity”, to the eruptions of religious faith in The Kingdom and Breaking the Waves, to the provocation of titling a film Nymphomaniac that should be about so many other things, has been marked by a showman’s determination to remain unique among the crowd. Sometimes the effect is brilliant, like having the doors of perception opened so that, for a moment, you really do see things differently. At other times, though, von Trier creates the maddening sensation that you’ve been cornered by a lunatic who demands that you join him in his insanity. I’ll let you judge which of these Nymphomaniac belongs to.