Nymphooooo-maniac. To many, the title says it all: this movie is about sex, sex, and more sex. And yes, those people would be right. The issue comes when people jump to the conclusion that this intense sexual focus makes the already-controversial Lars Von Trier’s latest film nothing more than glorified pornography. On that note, one would be very wrong. This seems to happen every year when a movie like Shame, Blue Is the Warmest Color, or the lesser-known Stranger By the Lake comes along and deals with the fascinating subject of sex in a candid manner, but Nymphomaniac is already infamous for taking that to the next level.
Film, like literature, music, and other forms of art, is here to explore the many facets of our lives in ways that we have yet to experience; to make us think thoughts we’ve never thought before and imagine things we’ve never imagined in a way that relates to each of our individual lives and the universal human experience. From the notorious Motion Picture Production Code to the MPAA, sensitive activist groups, and concerned parents, there have been plenty of obstacles blocking the topic of sex, a complex topic instrumental to all of our lives, from being properly explored throughout the extent of film history. But the digital age of online streaming and Video On Demand, despite its many setbacks to the world of cinema, does allow for one good thing: a widened freedom of expression. Most theatres, the ideal location for watching movies, aren’t bold enough to show a film with explicit sex scenes (the only in the Boston area show Nymphomaniac Vol. I is Kendall Square Cinema), but the Internet has made this gem available to a wider audience.
Nymphomaniac marks the end of Danish director Lars Von Trier’s unofficial “trilogy of depression.” All three are well worth watching (the first two available to stream on Netflix), but Nymphomaniac soars above the rest, it’s a true magnum opus. The first of the trilogy (which is connected only thematically, not by characters or setting), Antichrist, focused on the sudden chaos and panic of grief; the second, Melancholia, focused on the emptiness and coldness of clinical depression; and now Nymphomaniac focuses on the twisted regrets and guilt of self-deprecation. That’s right. There is a little more than just sex to this movie.
In a boldly slow opening, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds the protagonist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who also stars in Antichrist and Melancholia), bloodied and beaten in an alley. He takes her into his apartment to care for her, and Joe confesses to him the tales, light and dark, of her life as a nymphomaniac, shown in flashbacks of a Younger Joe (newcomer Stacy Martin). Even as a Von Trier fan, I went in expecting this to use overly-gratuitous sex to conceal a flat story, but this turned out to be far, far more than a shallow hype movie. Although there is a lot of sex, most of it is implied, none of it is gratuitous, and all of it is artfully done. Essentially, it’s a very far cry from the pornography it’s accused of being.
The only thing gratuitous about the film is Von Trier’s lazy-looking use of heavily-stylized techniques, such as jump cuts, split screens, on-screen graphics, and changing aspect ratios and color. Some of them do work very well, but when you throw a thousand darts at a target, you’re bound to hit a bulls-eye, and Lars Von Trier has never been one to hold back from throwing as many darts as possible. Half the techniques, especially the jump cuts, are so sloppily subtle and misplaced they look more like mistakes than artistic choices (because they likely are), and the other half have already been done to death by Quentin Tarantino. A lot of the times it feels like Von Trier had just finished watching Breathless for the first time and really wanted to pretend he was part of the French New Wave. Okay, I’m being hard on poor old Lars, but come on, like most great filmmakers, he’s too much of a self-absorbed asshole to care anyways. But in all seriousness, the vast majority of the film is beautifully directed, and the screenplay is better than flawless. The dialogue is smart, packed with memorable new aphorisms and other quotes, and each chapter of Joe’s story is enrapturing.
Joe’s story to Seligman is split into chapters (five of which are featured in this volume): the first follows Joe’s hyper-curious childhood as she grows up, loses her virginity, and baits men; the second paints her brief, curious romance with her boss, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf); the third displays the ensuing catastrophe when one of Joe’s many lovers leaves his mortified wife (Uma Thurman) for Joe; the fourth diverts to the delirious downfall and death of Joe’s father (Christian Slater) in the hospital; and the fifth contrasts three of Joe’s lovers, each of whom offer her something entirely different. Between each chapter, Joe and Seligman exchange feelings and theories, often making astute comparisons between aspects of love and totally different elements of culture, ranging from polyphony to fly-fishing. Although the way Von Trier writes these comparisons is extremely condescending to the audience, spelling them out as if the viewers have absolutely no sense of intelligence or culture, the comparisons are nonetheless amusing to ponder.
This probably features Von Trier’s best ensemble to date, arguably even better than that of Dogville (also highly recommended). While Stacy Martin’s performance as the protagonist isn’t especially impressive, there is nothing bad to say about it either, and she certainly deserves an applause for being a trooper through the countless blowjob and sex scenes. Stellan Skarsgard and Charlotte Gainsbourg have the chemistry of two master thespians onstage and maintain the audience’s full captivation as the film cuts away from the main action of the stories to the quaint one-room scenes of their subdued repartee and insightful musings. Even though Gainsbourg is sitting in bed for nearly the entirety of her performance, she still kills it; it’s one of those performances where you can really feel the lifetime of agony breaking from her eyes. If I had to pick a weak link in the cast, I suppose I’d have to pick Christian Slater, who although charming as always, can’t shake the plain fact that he’s just too creepy a guy to feel very bad for, a crucial element of his character.
Shia LaBeouf’s performance was the one, of course, I was most curious about going into the movie. I was skeptical to see Louis Stevens engaging in (allegedly) un-simulated sex and reluctant to believe he had the chops for material more complex than Michael Bay’s. After this, it’s safe to say it: Mr. LaBeouf has officially grown up, not just in age, but as an actor. He transforms into the character of Jerome, and even the biggest Even Stevens fan will have long forgotten Louis by the time of the climactic penetration scene. Let’s hope he doesn’t return to Transformers and Indiana Jones sequels after this potential turning point in the young star’s career. But the real MVP of the cast is far and away Uma Thurman, who glues your eyes to hers for every short second she’s onscreen. Her’s is the type of performance that people years from now will be scratching their heads over the Oscar snub (unfortunately, there’s not a chance in hell the Academy’s touching this movie).
Great acting? Check. Great writing? Check. Great directing? Check, even with the mild over-stylization. Without having even seen Volume II (which should be theatrically released on April 4), I’m confident that Nymphomaniac will go down as an all-time (cult) classic, either despite or partly because of its landmark depictions of copulation. Nymphomaniac is to sex what The Seventh Seal is to death or Do the Right Thing is to racism: the seminally quintessential landmark. Nymphomaniac will go down as the Lolita of film.
Review by Matthew D’Innocenzo