When the news broke that Lars Von Trier was working on a film called Nymphomaniac with Charlotte Gainsbourg, many a cinephile were full of apprehension and nervous excitement. After seeing this most recent feature from the distinguished Danish director of such controversial critical sensations such as Breaking The Waves (1996), Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011), it is difficult to imagine any expectation that Nymphomaniac wouldn’t exceed, destroy, or entirely subvert. Any initial gesture toward convention is immediately undermined and nothing is tied up neatly with a bow.
While a full four hours of Nymphomaniac may be a lot to take (P.S. there’s really no avoiding punny phrasing with this review), viewers are strongly recommended to opt for a double-feature evening. Yes, evening, watching this film in the middle of a sunny spring day with a lunch break makes for a bizarre experience. More importantly, volumes I and II really feel more like one epic film and less like two independent instalments.
While it is clear at times that Von Trier might be working through some of his frustration with what he views as the pitfalls of a politically correct society and its pop-psychobabble, Nymphomaniac avoids cliché exquisitely; for a four-hour film about a female nymphomaniac/sex addict, this is an extraordinary achievement. Von Trier even manages several moments of levity that allow the audience to come up for air. Look out for Uma Thurman’s brief appearance as a hysterical jilted wife while Shia LaBeouf’s ‘Good Job Liz!’ threatens to replace ‘You go Glenn Cocoa’ in the millennial lexicon.
Nymphomaniac is variably unforgiving and tender in its portrayal of a woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her life as a sexual creature in a world that is equally preoccupied with nurturing and policing her sexuality. Gainsbourg gives a staggering performance as Joe in her later adult years, an engrossing and soupy mixture of vulnerability and stiffness. Stellan Skarsġard is virtually perfect as Joe’s confidant and watching the two of them together is like music. Stacy Martin is thoroughly creepy and endearing as young Joe, even if the choice to have one 22-year-old actress play a character from her early teens to late 30s is a bit much. That being said, Martin helps to smooth this disconnect by completely nailing Gainsbourg’s voice and mannerisms in a youthful package. The second of Nymphomaniac’s ageless wonders is LaBeouf as Jerôme, an arrogant young man (apparently from Californiashire) whose fumbling foray into adulthood continuously intersects with Joe’s story. The film is also peppered with extremely strong supporting performances by the likes of Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Jamie Bell and Willem Dafoe.
Nymphomaniac seems to announce its thesis statement a number of times throughout volumes I and II, flipping the film over onto itself so many times that the viewing experience begins to feel a bit like bad sex – just when you think you’ve locked into a rhythm, you’re flipped over again. The audience is left exhausted and tasked with unpacking the implications of the film’s pupil-busting final moments. Nymphomaniac has something important to say about men and women, sex, and the difference between what is and what should be, though ultimately each viewer will have to work out for themself what exactly that is.
By Julia Huggins