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NYMPHOMANIAC (Theatrical Version) Review – **** (Vol. 1, ****/Vol. 2, ***½) – NSFW

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Not a screen-cap, unfortunately.

Not a screen-cap, unfortunately.

I’m not going to go quite as in-depth here as I might (NOTE: So much for that), in large part because what I saw was only the four-hour “softcore” version, and not the 5½-hour “hardcore” director’s cut. As such, some of the issues I had with the film’s plotting (namely the last 40 minutes of Vol. 2) may be attributable to the cutting. Also, nature was calling upon me for much of Vol. 2, and not wanting to miss any von Trierian goodness, I stayed in my seat and stuck it out to the very end, and found the ending rather weak, especially compared to the transcendence of Melancholia‘s finale. But meditating on it, wanting to give it another chance, and the fact that it haunts me still have convinced me to be lenient, nudging it into the **** range until further notice.

(Spoilers; TW violence, sexual violence, graphic sexuality, etc.)

The plot is at once simple and very complex, being at once its protagonist’s life-story and also the occasion for many digressions on the part of her audience. The story is divided into two volumes and eight chapters:

  • The Compleat Angler
  • Jerôme
  • Mrs. H
  • Delirium
  • The Little Organ School
  • The Eastern and the Western Church (The Silent Duck)
  • The Mirror
  • The Gun

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is discovered, badly beaten, in an alleyway by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a bachelor intellectual who takes her and inquires her about her story. Joe recounts her life as reflected by her sexual exploits:

The opening shot.

The opening shot.

  • After discussing her initial anatomical revelations, we see her (played in flashback by Stacy Martin) lose her virginity to local boy Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), then in league with her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), boards a train and engages in a contest: whoever can seduce the most men on the train wins a bag of candy. By fellating an initially reticent businessman (Jens Albinus), she wins the contest and the candy.
  • Joe and B form a club, “The Little Flock”, consisting of young women who sleep with men, but never more than once, and without love. (The club’s motto is “Mea vulva, mea maxima vulva”.)
  • Seeking a job, she finds herself hired by a firm temporarily managed by Jerôme. She rejects his advances, and when his uncle (Jesper Christensen) resumes control of the firm, he tells Joe that Jerôme has left on a trip with his new bride.
  • Joe begins juggling numerous lovers at once, one of whom, Mr. H (Hugo Speer), she decides to break up with, as he will not leave his family for her sake. Only minutes later, he returns, having done just that, but his wife, Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) arrives with their young children to bid him a humiliating goodbye (and to show the children “the whoring bed”).
  • Joe’s beloved father (Christian Slater), falls ill and dies, and during his time in the hospital she seeks release with various hospital orderlies.
  • While out on a walk, Joe encounters the newly-single Jerôme, and they decide to form a relationship, but when they sleep together, Joe finds herself unable to feel sexual pleasure any longer. (Here Vol. 1 ends.)
  • Joe and Jerôme nonetheless have a child together, named Marcel. (Gainsbourg now assumes the role in full.) Their life together is difficult, compounded by Joe’s continued sexual malaise, but they stick it out. Joe, desperate to feel something again, visits K (Jamie Bell), a BDSM expert who gives her the name “Fido” and whose attentions finally restore her sexual sensations.
  • After an incident where Joe leaves Marcel home alone and he nearly hurts himself (a very obvious nod to Antichrist), Jerôme gives her an ultimatum: stop seeing K or never see him or Marcel again. After berating her to make a decision, she flees in tears and demands K’s immediate attention: he gives her 40 lashes (“the Roman maximum sentence”) with a whip she has made at his request.
  • Now on her own, she obtains employment, but her sexual reputation leads her boss to order to visit a support group. She does so, but at a subsequent meeting of the group sees her own reflection in the mirror and reaffirms her own nymphomania, condemning the group and walking out.
  • Still seeking employment, she goes to work for a loan shark (Willem Dafoe), using her knowledge of sexuality and bondage to humiliate men and ensure their compliance. At her boss’ insistence, she befriends a young girl, P (Mia Goth), whose parents are themselves criminals. She and P grow close, and when P reaches the age of majority, they move in together, and soon become romantically involved.
  • Joe takes P with her on the job, which P takes to happily, but she is troubled by P’s violent tendencies. One night, she realizes that their assigned target is none other than Jerôme, and rather than face him, allows P to take over. P and Jerôme become involved with each other behind Joe’s back, and when Joe discovers this, she confronts them in an alleyway with P’s gun. She forgets to cock the gun and is instead beaten by Jerôme, who then has sex with P while Joe watches. P then urinates on Joe, and she and Jerôme leave together, leaving Joe to be discovered by Seligman.

Seligman disputes Joe’s view of herself as evil, and argues that Joe was justified in her actions, given their personal and social context. Joe resolves to abstain from sexuality henceforth and goes to bed, but Seligman, who has hitherto expressed little interest in sex, tries to molest her and she shoots him with P’s gun before fleeing.

Joe and Seligman in a moment of unity.

Amidst all these plot points are the specifics of Joe and Seligman’s conversations, and Seligman’s digressions (von Trier called the film’s style “digressionism”), which are often elaborate parallels of Joe’s tale; the number of thrusts Jerôme exercises in their first encounter (3 in the front, 5 in the back–3+5) are related to the Fibonacci sequence, Joe and B’s escapade on the train is compared at length to fly fishing, a favorite pastime of Seligman’s, and so forth.

While von Trier’s writing is a large part of Nymphomaniac’s greatness, it’s also responsible for some of its weaknesses. On the one hand, von Trier is as clever as ever. The parallels between Joe’s stories and Seligman’s digressions are often breathtaking; near the end of Vol. 1, a parallel is drawn between Joe’s juggling of 3 different lovers and musical polyphony (namely a Bachian organ piece). It’s really delightful to see von Trier attempt something so audacious and pull it off.

And his idiosyncratic wit is in plentiful supply: Joe’s father introduces her to the concept of the “soul tree”–that is, the tree that reflects one’s inner self. When Joe finds hers, it’s a poetically shot moment. Also, the use of fables–namely the fable of the ash tree–is vintage von Trier, not totally unlike the “magic cave” of Melancholia‘s final moments. And who, seeing this film, could ever eat rugelach with a cake fork again?

The dialogue generally shines. “Mea vulva, mea maxima vulva”; “I’ve always demanded more of the sunset”; “I think that was one of your weakest digressions”; “The secret ingredient to sex is love”, and so forth. Fans of von Trier’s writing will, for the most part, be very happy with the film. But (and I admit I might not have given this part of the film the fairest hearing, given the circumstances), I think it begins to lose steam in the last third of Vol. 2, especially when P enters the picture.

P is a frustrating character. Her arc (she and Joe start sleeping together, she becomes too acute a student of Joe’s, she ultimately fucks Joe over) feels rather predictable; did we really need another teenage girl character who proves to be a lascivious back-stabber? Her and Joe’s relationship doesn’t feel totally organic either, since nowhere else in the film does Joe seem to be at all interested in other women. I doubt that von Trier included it for lewdness’ sake, and the argument has been advanced that many of the cuts from the longer version came in the final chapters, but as it is, it feels like something we’ve seen before.

And then there’s the ending (which, admittedly, I don’t recall perfectly, since I knew the film was about to end and was getting antsy). Seligman tries to rationalize Joe’s actions, even saying that she subconsciously didn’t want to kill Jerôme–otherwise how could she make such an absurd mistake as to not cock the gun? The two of them reflect on the sunrise, and Joe, renouncing intercourse, bids good-night to Seligman, calling him her only true friend. Seligman goes, but comes back a moment later, sans pants, and tries to stick his hand up Joe’s nightgown. She desperately says “No”, grabs the gun, and we hear (the screen cuts to black) Seligman tell her “But you’ve fucked thousands of men”, before she shoots him and leaves.

The ending, to my mind, feels rather abrupt and out-of-character for Seligman–even if his claims of asexuality mask a great sexual frustration, the idea that he would not only try to molest Joe, but while she’s sleeping no less, stretches believability. Seligman is, to be fair, portrayed as socially awkward (though not cripplingly so), and Skarsgård’s performance hints at depths which his words do not betray. But the ending still feels like it comes out of left field, as if von Trier were trying to make a point about the nature of male sexuality but did not set it up properly (or, again, the full-length version might fill some of the holes).

The more I write about the ending, the more it makes sense (though I still think it’s kind of abrupt), which is partly why I raised the score of Vol. 2 and the film as a whole. I’m reserving final judgment for a subsequent viewing, but I can understand what LVT was going for. The jury’s still out on P, though.

In any case, von Trier also continues to create fine characters (or at least writes roles that actors can play the hell out of); Joe is at once a bit of enigma, even to herself, but she is sympathetic while not being held up as perfect; she expresses viewpoints that some might find decidedly off-putting, and in one of the film’s most painful and haunting sequences, she tries to determine the orientation of a debtor (Jean-Marc Barr), and tells him a series of erotic stories, none of which inspire a reaction. She tells another story which begins with the debtor walking through the park, when he hears the sound of swing chains; at this point, I instinctively went “oh, no”, and sure enough, the debtor’s inner nature as a pedophile–which it is suggested he might not have been consciously aware of–is revealed. Joe’s reaction to this, and her justification of it, may absolutely disgust some, but they are pure von Trier. That’s all I’ll say.

Seligman, Jerôme, Joe’s father, K, even Mrs. H are all superbly drawn characters, though it’s hard to separate character from performance, so perfectly cast is the film as a whole. Again, P is the weakest character, writing-wise, but even she is played well-enough.

Another incredible performance.

Another incredible performance.

The cast is, without exception, magnificent. This is Charlotte Gainsbourg’s third collaboration with von Trier, and she’s absolutely magnificent, nailing all the facets of Joe: her weariness (Gainsbourg’s face has never looked so poignantly melancholy), her bitterness, her sense of hope, and her sexual desperation (which manifests itself as fear, as addiction, as pride…you name it). For a performance where she spends much of her screen-time just sitting in bed, she is nothing less than riveting. As the younger Joe, Stacy Martin is also very good, her soft, doe-like nature making a suitable contrast with her sexual adventurousness and resourcefulness. She and Gainsbourg were both rightfully nominated for the Bodil (one of the two major Danish film awards) for Best Actress; rightfully, Gainsbourg won.

stacy martin nymphomaniac

A most promising young actress.

Skarsgård (who was nominated for Best Actor) is no less perfect. Seligman easily could’ve been a dry, expository bore, but Skarsgård digs into the role, evoking a lifetime of isolation, of frustration, confusion, and meditation. He delights in his own wit, at least initially, but as he hears and reacts to Joe’s story, the digressions get fewer and farther between. He even plays the final moments of the film as they should be played: the act of a man who does not necessarily fully understand what he is doing, but a disgusting, dehumanizing act nonetheless. It’s interesting to compare his work here to his performance as the loathsome Martin Vanger in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; both sick men, but otherwise totally different.

In the large supporting cast, special mention must be given to Uma Thurman’s work as Mrs. H; she belongs on the list of the great one-scene performances. In maybe 7 minutes of screen-time, she shows the full gamut of Mrs. H’s emotions without missing a beat, and a performance that could easily have plunged into ham becomes a truly jolting portrait of a woman whose life is falling apart around her, who tries to humiliate as she has been humiliated, yet who cannot hide the pain or shame of her situation. It’s a brilliant performance, the best work she’s done in years. She was nominated for the Bodil; how she didn’t win is beyond me.

Two of the best performances of the year.

Two of the best performances of the year.

I might as well mention the final Bodil nominee, Jamie Bell as K. We see K’s methodical approach to BDSM, his careful preparations, his demand for absolute control, his precise application of “punishment”, and Bell is spot-on. He’s no one-dimensional sicko. He’s absolutely believable, inviting one to meditate on just who K is, but never leaves any gaps in his performance. Hopefully he collaborates with von Trier further; he was also very strong in the von Trier-scripted (and massively underrated) Dear Wendy.

Christian Slater, doubtless working with the best material he’s had in ages, is superbly sweet and sympathetic as Joe’s father. One of the few unequivocally good characters in the film, his bond with Martin (he never shares the screen with Gainsbourg) is deeply touching, and his portrayal of his physical decline (accompanied by delerium which reduce him to a weeping mess) is perfectly judged.

Could anyone have predicted that Shia LaBeouf would ever deliver as good a performance as he does here? Yet he absolutely nails Jerôme’s smugness and spoiled nature, which informs even his attempts to be a good father and partner to Joe. Jerôme is used to having things his way, and that sense of entitlement, and his spoiled disaffect, come through with absolute clarity.

Joe discovers her soul tree.

Really, the whole film is perfectly cast and played, down to von Trier regular Udo Kier, who cameos as a waiter who is the victim of a prank played by Joe and Jerôme (it involves spoons. That’s all I’ll say.)

And do I need to say anything about von Trier’s direction? It’s not the best directing job of his career, but he doesn’t falter here. His skill with actors I’ve already discussed, and his ability to make the extended sequences of Joe and Seligman sitting and discoursing as compelling as the rest of the film–well, I just mentioned that. I should note also that the film is filled with allusions to von Trier’s past work: there’s the blatant nod to Antichrist (which I confess seemed heavy-handed to me; also, I think the “Chaos reigns” fox makes a cameo), there’s a clip from The Kingdom, a little nod to his Epidemic, and other little winking tributes that fans will pick up on and sharper critics will doubtless point out. There are also a few nods to Tarkovsky (not least of which is the chapter title “The Mirror”, the name of Tarkovsky’s semi-autobiographical 1975 film), one of von Trier’s most profound influences.

large_nymphomanic-1_15226_blu-ray_

An example of the split-screen used during the polyphony sequence. (from http://www.dvdbeaver.com)

Manuel Alberto Claro’s beautiful cinematography helped make Melancholia the masterpiece it was, and he does a comparably striking job here, even if the emphasis here is more on words than images (superimposed text and numerals are frequently used to illustrate Seligman’s digressions). Moments like Joe’s discovery of her soul tree, or Joe lying in the alley, or the use of black-and-white during the Delirium chapter, or the brilliant use of split-screen during the polyphony sequence…all great, all adding to the film’s strengths.

Simone Grau’s production design, from the rain-soaked alley to Seligman’s shabby, cavernous apartment, to the very 70s offices Jerôme’s firm occupies, is great throughout. Costumes, makeup, and sound design are alike ideal. The editing, by Morten Højbjerg and Molly Marlene Stensgaard, is mostly brilliant, but I’ve noted some of the gaps in the story, and some of the blame has to fall on the cutting done for this version. Perhaps it couldn’t have been helped, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless.

I will say the use of music isn’t quite as good as it has been in other von Trier films. I don’t really remember a lot of the cues used, other than thinking some of them felt rather obvious. I do remember the heavy-metal song over the end credits of Vol. 1, with the growled refrain of “Nymphomania!”; it felt obvious to me.

Nymphomaniac‘s theatrical run seems to have been somewhat curtailed by the subject matter and the length, so most will have to wait until home media to see it (I did get to see it in a theater, but that was a mixed blessing). While I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point for von Trier neophytes, I do recommend it, because so much of it is so good. Vol. 1 is marvelous, and Vol. 2 is great until the last 30 minutes or so. And even those 30 minutes have some fine moments in them.

Basically, if you’re at all interested in Nymphomaniac, I recommend you see it. If you aren’t, or think you find it painful to watch–just stay clear. It’s a long, unflinching ride, and will likely disturb nearly every viewer at some point or other. But it is, with all its brilliance, worth it.

Score: 87/100 (Vol. 1: 90/100; Vol. 2: 84/100)

One guess as to what they're thinking.

One guess as to what they’re thinking.

 

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