“You can’t wank to it.” – Stellan Skarsgaard.
Ever since world cinema’s enfant terrible Lars Von Trier announced that his next film would be “a celebrity porno”, the rumours flew. It was five and a half hours long! (Four, divided into two parts over here). It featured celebrities doing it for real! (Nope, just some clever cutting between cast and porn actors as ‘body doubles’) It was going to be released in some countries on Christmas Day! (actually that one was true...) Strip away the hype and what you have is an undeniably challenging film that’s both not as graphic and much funnier than you would expect.
The film opens with academic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) walking to his home and finding the badly beaten body of a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in the alley outside. Taking her into his home, he aids her recovery and in return she tells him her life story, divided into chapters with titles such as “The Complete Angler” and “The Little Organ School.” Warning him that her stories will reveal her to be a ‘bad human being’, he is none the less hooked by her tales of her sexual exploits, revealing a bit more about herself with each one.
The film’s two parts divide neatly. Vol. 1 focuses mainly on Young Joe (a fantastic debut by Stacey Martin) as she discovers her desire and learns how to put it to use, although this is waylaid by her falling for her schoolmate Jerome (Shia LaBoeuf) and her relationship with her father (Christian Slater). Vol. 2 sees Gainsbourg take over and hit low after low following the inevitable disintegration of her one attempt at a normal life with Jerome.
The mood is deliberately unsettling from the get go. The opening sequence has Von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgaard doing his grocery shopping –to a blast of Rammstein’s industrial German metal - and it’s the feeling that things don’t quite match up that dominates the film. There are several scenes where it feels like the film is almost daring you to laugh, presenting serious situations comically. Amongst the most squirm-inducing moments is a blistering scene where the spurned wife of one of Joe’s conquests (Uma Thurman, terrific) shows up at her flat, children in tow, and demands to see “the whoring bed.” Cue nervous laughter. Later on a proposed threesome descends into farce as the two men argue about positions, Von Trier amusingly films them at waist height so all we see are their genitals, literal swinging dicks. In fact the suprising thing about the much talked about sex is how unsexy it is, lots of unflattering close ups of genitalia but very little in the way of actual action.
Late in Volume 1, Seligman compares Joe’s tale of juggling multiple lovers to the structure of Bach’s ‘Chorale Prelude in F Minor’, complete with visual breakdown. His running commentary on Joe’s story (he also compares her sex to angling and maths amongst many others) and the little animations used to describe them will delight and infuriate many in equal measure. It does give the overall feeling that Von Trier is messing with his audience – a bizarre audiovisual reference to Antichrist at one point doesn’t help. There’s a niggling feeling throughout Vol.1 that the director doesn’t want us to take any of this seriously at all.
But then with all the post-Antichrist hoopla it’s easy to forget that Von Trier made his name with films such as Breaking The Waves which weren’t so visually explicit as emotionally wrenching, and it’s when he goes for the heart that Nymphomaniac works best. There’s a scene with Joe’s dad in hospital that will bring a lump to the throat of anyone who’s had to deal with the illness of a loved one, and later her abusive relationship with a professional sadist (Jamie Bell, brilliant) makes you realise that you are emotionally involved. When she throws the condescending mantras of the self-help group she’s forced to attend back in their faces and storms out to a blast of Talking Heads’ Burning Down The House, you want to cheer.
It’s a shame then that the film’s final scene goes for another cheap laugh which deadens the impact of the preceding climax (of story…), another reminder that we shouldn’t be taking it seriously. Also in a film driven by a strong ensemble cast, one below-par performance is always going to stand out, and sadly Shia LaBoeuf, struggling with a terrible Cockney accent, aims at somewhere between charming and sinister and spectacularly misses both. It’s a shame as Joe falling for his character is a crucial arc of the film.
After Vol. 1 I was certain this was heading for a 3/5 as it’s tonally all over the place. But Vol 2 brings the whole thing together strongly. It’s compelling, funny and infuriating all at once, but parts of it have been returning un-bidden to my memory since I saw it and now I’m looking forward to the DVD so I can attempt to see it in one four-hour lump. Not for the easily offended or squeamish, fascinating for the rest.