Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Film Review: Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

I am going to assume that Lars von Trier's latest film(s), aka the double whammy, two-part, seeming sex farce Nymphomaniac (released as a five hour epic in Europe, the film is to be shown separately in the states, both theatrically and on demand as Part 1 in March, and Part 2 in April) is meant to be funny - at least to some degree. Sure, von Trier, aka the melancholy Dane, is known for some very somber, dark films (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist can all be quite devastating) but he has done comedy before (The Idiots, The Boss Of It All - even his end of the world picture, Melancholia, has some good laughs throughout) and one must assume that Nymphomaniac is in this latter group, at least to a certain extent - even with its many, many, many traumatic and tragic events. A controversial figure from pretty much day one (and now persona non grata at Cannes, thanks to some ill-advised Hitler jokes, and the auteur's nervous habit of not being able to stop himself once he has dug himself such a hole) von Trier keeps pushing the envelope of moviemaking, and the oh so obvious and purposefully provocative ad campaign which accompanies his new double feature, pretty much rips said envelope wide open, for all to see. Just take a look at the posters that have been popping up for the film over the past few months, and you will see the obvious instigation from von Trier's self-realizing camp - not to mention some more blatant, albeit so-called dark, comedy in the frozen orgasmic faces of his troupe of go-for-broke actors. The thing is though, Nymphomaniac, it's name and posters aside, is not so much about sex as it is about obsession and addiction.

As far as the story itself goes, the film is about the life and sexual exploits of a young girl named Joe. Told in storybook flashbacks (each chapter named and numbered) by a fortysomething Joe, played by Trierian regular Charlotte Gainsbourg, we are given glimpses into the life of Joe, from seven on up thru her twenties. This teen and twentysomething Joe is played by stunning newcomer, Stacy Martin. It is Martin's daring, bravura performance as the young, sexually confused Joe, that is the oh so important, and oh so intriguing crux of the first half of von Trier's double feature. The film also features Stellan Skarsgard as the kind stranger to whom Joe tells her tale, Shia LaBeouf as a cocky jerk for whom Joe falls, Christian Slater as Joe's loving father, Jamie Bell as a sadistic sex guru, and Willem Dafoe as a typically Willem Dafoe sleazeball criminal, albeit in a sadly uneventful role. There is also a one-scene performance from Uma Thurman, as a jilted wife and mother, that goes from tragic to hilarious and right back to tragic again. Not that it's very likely at all, I would love to see some sort of year-end awards buzz for her tiny but mesmerizing performance. But I digress, for this is the story of Joe, and it is Joe who is the centerpiece here. But even more importantly (and here is where my auteurist sensibilities kick in) this is a Lars von Trier film, and from the near two minute fade-in to the Charlotte Gainsbourg covered Hendrix closing credits, this is indeed very much a Lars von Trier film.

Yes, many tend to despise this filmmaker, and no, he doesn't help things much by his queer antics (antics I tend to get a kick out of by the way) but to anyone who knows and loves cinema, a von Trier film is a thing of great beauty. Granted, this great beauty can ofttimes manifest itself as quite vulgar and/or reprehensible behaviour and imagery, but still something quite spectacular indeed. In Nymphomaniac, von Trier gives us a tale of despair and loneliness, a search for something, anything better in life, and does it with wit and charm, comedy and tragedy, style and a surprising amount of grace. Like von Trier's Antichrist and Melancholia, the film, or films as it were, are akin to the 1960's art films of Antonioni and Tarkovsky, in that they are stunningly choreographed and displayed with the most OCD kind of artistic touch, beautiful to look at, but also quite difficult to watch for some, and filled with uncomfortable laughter and unquestionable cinephiliac chutzpah. Granted, I am not as adversely affected by such things, such emotions, as your average moviegoer (and the average moviegoer would probably walk out of any and all of von Trier's films anyway) but the sheer nasty beauty of this film is oddly breathtaking.

And then there is the dialogue, the narrative of the film, especially within the one-on-one conversations between Gainsbourg's Joe and Skarsgard's kindly Seligman, is extremely precise in its artistry. We are given detailed asides into the proper, or most manly use of a cake fork or the differentiation between the Eastern Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic one - all the while, making them be allegorical entries into Joe's chapters of sexual proclivities. Von Trier claims that he based this film, the third of his so-called Depression trilogy, following the aforementioned Antichrist and Melancholia, on the writings of Marcel Proust. This may very well be a ridiculous (and purposefully antagonistic on the director's behalf) boast, but one can read between the film's quite deliberate lines, to see that this is a film based on the same underlying principals of forbidden love and self deception as Proust's epic grand work. Both formalistic and highly stylized, Nymphomaniac never delves into the netherworld as much as something like Antichrist did, nor does it ever become as (figuratively AND literally) world-shattering as Melancholia, but the air of the film is indeed a dark and stormy night kind of place, a place full of sexual and psychological degradation, brutal, ugly things  - even if there is a strangely unexpected amount of  humour, albeit the darkest of humour, throughout. And trust me, you will never look at a bag of sweets the same again. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


  1. I have to see this film if it even comes around my area in VCR. To think of Jamie Bell in this format cracks me up. I wonder if this director has ADHD if he has permanent foot in mouth disease.

  2. VCR, huh?

    Yeah, Jamie Bell is quite fun to watch here. My favourite part of von Trier's meltdown at the Canes press conference a few years back, was the look on poor Kirsten Dunst's face. You could just see her saying in her head. Shut up Lars. Shut up shut up shut up!

    Take care. Se ya 'round the web.

  3. I loved this movie. Movies. Whatever. It's always good to see that women can be sexual without necessarily being sexy. It's funny that a film by a director many call a misogynist - and I don't necessarily think he is, and I'm what one would call a liberated dame - is so female friendly. I know many claim it is not, that he is sexualizing women, but it just isn't true. So basically, what I am trying to get at here, is that I approve. I know you were waiting with baited breath for that, huh?