What do we talk about when we consider Lars von Trier’s latest film Nymphomaniac Vol. I and II? The obvious would be to comment on the sex, but that is only one element of many. There has been much ink spilled already about the sex portrayed in this film and it honestly feels infantile. Yes, the director gave this film a provocative title and used unsimulated sex to incite a wee bit of scandal, yet it seems as if much of the mainstream media are acting like 11-year-old children about it. Yes, this film does include shots of sex acts and sexual practices that are not vanilla. This is not a new phenomenon; this film cannot unseat the standard-bearer of explicit films, the masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses and is nowhere as arousing as a film like Secretary. People should be discussing this film, as it is rich in content, but acting scandalized and only centering on the direct portrayal of a few sex acts is insipid. It is dismaying to see major publications listing the explicit acts in the film instead of analyzing the themes or providing useful criticism. Yes, you will see close-ups of ‘naughty’ bits, but there is much more to be appreciated than that one facet. The story of a beaten woman, Joe(Charlotte Gainsbourg) rescued by a Good Samaritan, Seligman(Stellan Skarsgard) with whom she shares her life’s tale deserves more consideration than simply deeming it a sex film.
The roll-out of this film is one aspect that I find incredibly exciting about this endeavor. The first mention of this film happened during the infamous 2011 Cannes Melancholia press conference where von Trier sarcastically spoke about “understanding Hitler”. Not the best move on his part; one can’t act cheeky when speaking about Hitler. Several years passed and last June the first trailer or “appetizer” was released. This promotional tool would continue for six months, leaving the audience to piece together the truncated parts of the story in their minds. Film stills and posters also added to the mystery of what was to come. I had many preconceived notions about the plot and I was flat-out wrong. This is a brilliant way to lead up to a film; offer some crumbs and see what the audience’s imagination can conjure up. The film was then edited down from five and a half hours into two volumes, two hours each and released in random locales near the end of 2013. The film was released on VOD in March before the general theatrical release, just as Antichrist had been previously. I viewed Vol. I and II on VOD, as I was very impatient to see this and could not be certain of theater in my area having a screening.
Nymphomaniac alludes to von Trier’s work in several ways; themes repeat, musical cues recur and many of the same actors appear. Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe has appeared in von Trier’s last two films, joining regulars Stellan Skarsgard, Willem Dafoe, Jean-Marc Barr, and the indispensable Udo Kier. There are new faces as well including Stacy Martin as young Joe, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Mia Goth and Jamie Bell as K., who is emphatically Billy Elliot no longer. Wagner and Bach pieces plus some well-placed pop tunes are evocative of many previous films; one particular musical cue lifted from Antichrist literally made my heart race with dread.
Trier’s themes that recur in Nymphomaniac span the gamut from mystical visions to maneuvering cars. For example, the opening of Melancholia finds Justine, her groom and a chauffeur clumsily k-turning a limousine that has become stuck on a winding road. Similarly in Nymphomaniac Joe expertly parallel parks Jerome’s car, in a sequence complete with a parallel parking diagram superimposed over the road. P. finds a chocolate on her pillow, just as Justine had in Claire’s guest room in Melancholia. The otherworldly visions, both godly and satanic, which are present in Breaking the Waves and Antichrist are also echoed in this film. Even the idea that Justine “knows things” in Melancholia is alluded to in Joe, due to a highly specific supernatural event that occurs when she is young. Trier’s well-known adulation of Andrei Tarkovsky is continued (Antichrist is dedicated to Tarkovsky) as he named Chapter Seven of Nymphomaniac ‘The Mirror’ after the Russian director’s famous film.
The sets and costuming of Nymphomaniac are drab, to highlight the assertion that Joe “demands more of the sunset”. The images which are lush tend to be set in nature, the remainder are stark to illustrate her need for more excitement and passion. The alleyway in which Joe is found beaten is a brick-lined space in which only a sliver of sun ever appears. Seligman’s apartment is sparsely decorated and the few objects displayed serve as jumping-off points for Joe’s stories. Joe’s bachelorette apartment has whitewashed walls with little ornamentation; this abode is very similar to K.’s BDSM office, which she visits later in life. The lack of decoration amplifies the idea that Joe concentrates on sexual experiences to the exclusion of much else. Similarly, her person is generally engulfed within ill-fitting, modest clothes and her hair is greasy and unkempt. Joe has extrapolated that men are enticed by certain outfits but will participate in relations regardless of the condition of the seducer.
Joe’s wardrobe and demeanor are actually refreshing when compared with other stories of female sexuality. She is not a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac due to childhood abuse; her relationship with her father is very positive and loving. She is sexually compulsive due to the nature of human biology. Her discovery of arousal happened as a toddler and her experimentation with masturbation is a common portion of the youthful expression of sexual feelings. I was very pleased that the game of ‘playing frogs’ was presented, as little girls do act in this manner, but this behavior is not spoken about and is often discouraged and demonized. Similarly the club which Joe and her teenage friends form to distance themselves from traditional heterosexist relationships is an unusual sight; teens who do not strive after delusional romantic entanglements are rare in cinema. As Joe’s life progresses, her demeanor is that of cool indifference and control over her sexual experiences. Even when she visits K. and is treated with what can be taken as derision and sadistic violence, she is the one in control. K. does not force her to visit or adhere to his rules, she willfully seeks out his unique services and finds benefit in their interactions.
As with the majority of von Trier’s work, the ending of this film is an unsettling blow and will elicit fierce debate. Throughout the entirety of the film the conversation between Joe and Seligman serves as a conscious exposition on Joe’s story. The couple examines and critiques the events, make symbolic connections to scenarios via musings on and not limited to mathematical theory, fingernail grooming, literature and popular films. It feels as if the characters are telling the audience exactly what this film is supposed to be about; they are explaining the semiotic references so that we do not have to decipher them. The trick is that we as the audience are novices just as Seligman is; we only think we understand the events due to prior knowledge, not experience. The film begins in darkness with the sound of rain striking metal and ends in darkness, leaving shattered the illusion of truth we thought we had gained.
Authors Note: To date, I have watched the theatrical cut of this film three times, once in a theater. I have also watched the Director’s Cut(VOD), which is exceptional. If you have the time, the Director’s Cut is the real deal. 12/19/2014