Film Review: ‘Nymphomaniac’

Lars von Trier returns to UK cinemas this week with Nymphomaniac (2013), shortened and split into two volumes from a five-hour original cut. This dissection is unlikely to be the only divisive aspect of the self-styled auteur’s latest, a full-on descent into the eponymous addiction to fornication that’s as perversely humorous as it is confrontational. Spanning the life and times of the love-averse Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg in her later years, Stacy Martin in her youth), Nymphomaniac showcases the best – and the worst – of the Dane‘s talents.

Synopses can often be tricky when it comes to von Trier, but the most apt surmisal of Nymphomaniac’s indulgent and wandering narrative (not, it should be noted, necessarily a weakness) is that it documents one woman’s many sexual encounters all the way from her first, solitary orgasm. Its opening – and unequivocally more light-hearted – half sees a bruised and beaten adult Joe regaling good samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) with her unbelievable life story. We listen intently as her adolescent self comes to terms with an unquenchable hunger for sexual gratification. Partners come thick and fast (pun intended), with Shia LaBeouf’s bizarrely-accented Jerôme the one near-constant despite his almost petulant femininity.

Culminating in an operatic high as the initial tome gives way to its successor, Volume 2 returns von Trier to almost Antichrist levels of masochism and bodily abuse. Like her character in the aforementioned horror, Gainsbourg’s Joe isn’t so much a prisoner of her own gender as she is of the cruel, malevolent opposite sex. Jamie Bell’s intriguingly enigmatic ‘K’ gives her a taste for the torturous (plus ornithology), which prove more than useful when she inevitably begins turning the tables on mankind. Clearly not satisfied with the myriad of genres and ideologies already swimming through this wild, mischievous tale like nomadic spermatozoa, LvT even has time to dribble in some allusions to his own infamous oeuvre.

So what does it all add up to? Like Breaking the Waves (1996) and The Idiots (1998) before it, one would be churlish to presume that von Trier’s anarchic concoction of hardcore sex and pseudo-religious posturing will be everyone’s cup of tea. For the most part, Skarsgård’s Seligman is the perfect audience cypher, bemused by Joe’s fanciful tales of S&M and threesomes one minute before descending into his own digressions on everything from fly fishing to mathematics the next. The very ‘joy of Lars’ is that he allows himself to be laid bare on film, free from inhibition and self-censorship. One particularly telling scene sees a teenage Joe and her female school chums forming a movement with its own distinct ‘anti-love’ manifesto. For those who can cast their minds back to Dogme 95, the real-life parallels are there for the taking.

The Dane, as is ever the case, also proves himself adept at over-egging his own pudding. Several dalliances into the choppy waters of race and paedophilia are clunky rather than profound, whilst the second chapter as a whole feels a little too close to several past endeavours. But what else were we to expect from a director exiled from the world’s most renowned international festival for perceived anti-Semitism? A cluster of none-too-subtle swipes are made at his growing army of naysayers, but even these are conducted with the joie de vivre of an individual who has passed through Melancholia, only to emerge his old badly behaved self. Arthouse cinema’s persona non grata is back – and this time he’s remembered to pack his sense of humour.

Daniel Green | @DanGreen1986