No single director in recent memory has forcibly alienated and beguiled their audiences in equal measure as much as Lars von Trier. He’s an unforgiving chaser of controversy. He’s notoriously callous to work with. He’s a voracious practical joker with us, the spectator, being the punchline. Yet, while his garish braggadocio may seem splurgy and untiring, we never fail to fall head over heels for it. The work of von Trier blossoms from scandal and debate. And no other film in his tawdry collection of hot potatoes has scolded the hands of the public as severely as Nymphomaniac (2013). This two-part anthology, posing as an existential pilgrimage into the realms of sexual perversion, gushed controversy.
The title alone, as well as indelicately replacing the ‘o’ with brackets to capture some sort of carnal imagery, was enough to see irregular web crashes from a jerky influx of traffic. And then, like a horny Aesop, came the fabled rumours and press-baited delusions. It’s with all the bacchanal craziness that Nymphomaniac offers its biggest knuckle-whitening shocker. Comparatively, this is von Trier’s most tame, most tender, most inoffensive, most purposefully accessible film so far. That is not to say it is his best work, nor is it to say it is wholly humdrum in execution.
Starring many of von Trier’s favoured actors, the story revolves around Charlotte Gainsbourg as the intensely sexual Joe and Stellan Skarsgård as the soft-spoken hermetic Seligman. After discovering Joe beaten and bleeding in an alleyway, Seligman nurses the seemingly unemotional woman in the comforts of his lifeless apartment. Here, Joe chronicles in microscopic detail an autobiographical account of her sexual exploits. The brutality of Joe’s tales paralleled with Seligman’s unremitting politeness makes for truly dynamic performances. Gainsbourg burns with sexual presence. She acts as the perfect capsule for a character with such a pornographic disposition. Whilst the sex scenes are central to the film, it’s Gainsbourg’s many digressions that are most compelling.
Less, however, is to be said for von Trier’s wildcard, LaBeouf as Jerôme. This focal character personifies erotic deficiency, the frailty of male egoism and the disregard for sexual power. But what should be metaphysically rendered in Jerôme’s character is ravished by LaBeouf and his inability to grapple the English accent. All tension is lost both colloquially and sexually in LaBeouf’s portrayal. Argumentatively, this creative stiffness may have been intentional by nature of von Trier’s direction. But it becomes so unavoidably jarring that all mood is spoiled. Yet beyond LaBeouf lies buxom proof that von Trier could be warming to his audiences.
Genteel nods to his previous films such as Antichrist (2009) and Breaking the Waves (1996) are rather tactlessly scattered in the narrative. But underneath the self-aggrandising references, the constant porn and the media-seizing plugs, lies an even and unfazed story. Every actor (bar one) exposes a bare-boned innocence in their roles and abilities. Every perversion has a point. And while it may not cheekily muscle in a debate on what’s ‘going too far’ in cinema – something ubiquitous with von Trier’s work – Nymphomaniac is a genuine accomplishment.