The uncut first half of Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013) was unleashed as nature intended last week Out of Competition at this year’s 64th Berlinale. It’s as bonkers as you would expect, but not at the expense of being brazenly philosophical, psychologically stimulating and – most unexpectedly – outrageously funny. Von Trier has given no interviews explaining his motives behind Nymphomaniac, and with stars including bag-regarder Shia LaBeouf, in full frontal sex scenes (porn stars double for the actors’ intimate areas), it might be difficult knowing how seriously to take it.
This opening chapter – around thirty minutes longer than its theatrical counterpart – revolves around a chance meeting in a rundown housing estate between Stellan Skårsgard’s Seligman and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s beaten-up Joe. In flashback, they explore her sexual history from birth to her mid-twenties, positioned in dialogue as two opposing ideologies – Skårsgard as a philosophical eunuch, and Gainsbourg as a raunchy sensual go-getter. “I’m just a bad human being”, Joe tells Seligman, before diving into a story of losing her virginity at fifteen (played by the brilliantly inscrutable Stacy Martin) to scruffy biker kid Jerome (the no-longer-famous LaBeouf) whose accent seems to reside somewhere between the mid-Atlantic.
Joe has conquests of eight men a day, while dropping out of medical school and joining a wild feminist gang who “rebel against a love-fixated society”, revelling in the “right to be horny”. Taken as given, the film is the funniest film von Trier’s ever made, a cruel comedy on demolishing notions of ‘what women want’. Or maybe it’s a revenge tale that reflects on misogynistic society, religion and concepts of feminism. Or perhaps exploring the relationship between sex and love. Who knows? The film’s tonally all over the place, but that only serves to make it so richly compelling. With full frontal nudity (both female and male) the norm throughout, it could be argued that von Trier is tacitly exploring the limits of what can be shown on screen.
And yet it’s impossible to say Nymphomaniac is pornographic. It’s upfront, candid, necessary to the film, and not a great leap from what was seen in Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013). It would be very harsh of the BBFC to grant an 18 certificate to this with anything more than very minor cuts. Instead, much of the running time is spent dissecting von Trier’s diverse esoteric interests; the Fibonacci sequence, or leafs of certain types of trees, or discussing the polyphonic tones of Bach (don’t worry, it’s explained in on-screen graphics). Throughout, von Trier gives us an extended fishing metaphor to describe Joe reeling in her men that borders on the farcical. But at the centre is a conversation of whether Joe’s sexual urge is natural and therefore acceptable, or a sinful rebellion against conventional morality.
Reflections on Kierkegaard, briefly mentioned in the film, are a good reference point, or even the nature/grace dichotomy at the centre of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). But for all of von Trier’s recent arty pretensions, the director’s got his mojo back because his filmmaking is once again so urgent. A sequence – extended for this version – in which Joe’s father (Christian Slater) descends into delirium, gives a glimpse of how von Trier, when pushed, can produce scenes of real rawness. And there’s a barnstorming cameo by Uma Thurman as a wife whose husband leaves her for Martin’s coquettish Joe. It’s a fascinating first salvo for which the director concludes his ‘Depression Trilogy’. Censors shouldn’t worry – nothing in Volume 1 arouses anything except the intellect.
The 2014 Berlin Film Festival takes place from 6-16 February. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.