Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013, Lars von Trier)
The back of the book I just finished reading, Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, talks about how it encompasses everything from torture in the Civil War to the definition of art to the science of injuring one’s genitals, despite being a book about an asylum patient’s contribution to the Oxford English Dictionary. That blurb popped into my head several times during this film, as I realized it was only about nymphomania insofar as it was also about fishing, silverware etiquette, Bach, bags of sweets, Edgar Allan Poe, trees and leaves, delirium, moped maintenance, geography, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the homemade stitching of pillows. The early trumped-up rumors that this was to be a five-hour opus of unsimulated sex and Youtube videos that Lars von Trier “found” are wildly inaccurate, but the truth may be even weirder: it’s a worldly satire, an assertion of independence, a bleak commentary on humanity, all as an outgrowth of nothing more than two people speaking to one another in a drab little bedroom.
Notice needs to be made, of course, that this is a Lars von Trier film and is thus in some ways an exercise in extremes — the whole of Nymphomaniac runs about five hours, or so we’re told. Presently available versions come closer to four, which is still plenty long. That doesn’t excuse the arbitrary bisection of the film for all of its public exhibitions to date. It’s difficult to understand why Nymphomaniac is solely available as two separate movies, their division artificial and distracting, but there’s very little we can do about it. A prime consequence is that, faced with the task of reviewing Volume I of the epic achievement in erotic self-loathing, we’re reminded that we don’t really know how to judge the first half and strictly the first half of a feature film. What we can sense is that it’s a pretty jarring turnaround from the director’s two prior features.
Charlotte Gainsbourg has become by this point the face of von Trier’s filmed demons, and in their third straight collaboration she is matched up with a fellow regular from his stable of actors, the dependably arch Stellan Skarsgård. As the scholarly loner Seligman, he discovers Gainsbourg’s Joe badly beaten in an alley and takes her in, so that — in some Mary Shelley or Marquis de Sade-like exchange of the late-night spooks — she can sip coffee and tell him the eight-chapter moral tale of her life as an insatiable nymphomaniac. Traveling from the early childhood when she “discovered her cunt” onward, she’s frequently interrupted by Seligman’s hilariously straightfaced overanalysis of her life story, explaining how it all relates to science and math and things he’s read and the broader culture and on and on. She believes she’s a terrible person for all the things she’s done — people she’s cheated and lied to, mostly, with a few more serious crimes and misdemeanors thrown in — and he keeps talking her down. Volume I only carries us as far as the point when Joe, being played in her youth by the impressively dour Stacy Martin, has fucked so much she “can’t feel anything” anymore.
It’s all funnier and goofier than you might expect; von Trier illustrates Seligman’s digressions with great enthusiasm, to the point that the film at times resembles a hilarious send-up of a drab educational video. Despite its premature reputation as a modern video nasty of sorts, it’s not a film that revels much in eroticism. Like the Seligman character, it looks upon sex clinically and distantly so that we can judge the actual merit of Joe’s story. Is she a reliable narrator? Is she a “bad” person? Is she even up for our judgment? Does she deserve it? (The question of whether any of us can be truly distant from this story — with all its hints of titillation and the playful exhuming of universal desires — is a matter that doesn’t escape the director’s attention, but he bides his time.) These themes are interesting, explored with wit, but it is a bit of a comedown from von Trier’s sinking into the depths of despair, depression, grief, and the very fabric of the world as we know it in Antichrist (which might have also been a sexier film than this one, believe it or not) and Melancholia — two heavy, emotionally taxing, brilliant films. Melancholia in particular takes on so much so beautifully that it’s difficult for Nymphomaniac not to seem comparatively trivial.
There are hints of the previous movies’ emotional depth and intensity in evidence, especially during the sequences that feature Christian Slater as Joe’s ailing father, but in general the film varies between deadpan humor and exuberantly witty cinematic trickery. You can sense how much fun the director’s having with all of the visual jokes and the loving illustrations of the mansplaining monologues that constitute nearly half of the narration. Each of the individual chapters would make quite a compelling short, the best being the splendidly lurid train competition — fuck the most men for a bag of chocolate sweeties — and the wildly unnerving confrontation between Joe and a lover’s wife (Uma Thurman, in very possibly her finest performance to date). Even without seeing what will allow all this to fall into place, it’s a gripping, clever, frequently funny and unexpectedly fun experience. The much-touted explicitness feels pretty much beside the point, which is as it should be; graphic sex is necessary for the story being told, it’s not the reason for the film’s existence.
What’s maybe odder is the realization that von Trier has become more conservative than ever before in his actual camera technique with this supposedly outlandish project — nearly all of the shots look like professional movie stuff, and not only that but a lot of them warrant such epithets as “composed” and “pretty,” something I can’t imagine him allowing just ten years ago. This is one slick, expensive-looking film… which, given its subject matter, is something we should applaud. I also kind of love that it has become — since I wrote most of this — available on Netflix Instant, the perfect final piece of subversion. Of course, none of this means Nymphomaniac would ever have gotten so far as even preproduction in America, but we’ll take it nonetheless.
All that said, by the time I was being lectured (Skarsgård is so effortlessly funny as the professorial homegrown Kinsey figure that you nearly miss the humor in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s subtle gritted-teeth impatience with him) about the history and proper use of cake knives, I couldn’t help noticing how far we were from the seriousness, mystery and power of von Trier’s best films. As ambitious and fascinating as this is, it doesn’t even try to tackle anything like the human dregs, passions and fears he’s capable of taking on. But that’s my only complaint so far, besides the fact that the House of Usher interpolation made me long for the idea of a full-fledged Lars von Trier adaptation of a Poe story. On to Volume II!