|Charlotte Gainsbourg assumes the position in Nymphomaniac, Volume 2|
««½ Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 and «««½ Nymphomaniac: Volume 2. Written and directed by Lars von Trier. At selected theaters.
Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac starts with one minute and twenty seconds of black leader. For viewers settling in for what they hoped might be a sexy new opus by Denmark's bad boy of cinema, that's an eternity of dead time. But this choice turns out to be oddly apt, because nobody gets what they want in this film—neither von Trier's characters, nor most viewers, nor the critics, nor—we suspect—von Trier himself. For a film about bottomless, unfulfillable need, what's more fitting than a minute or two in the yawning darkness?
The script—also by von Trier—concerns Joe, a woman we meet beaten and dumped in a rain-soaked alley (played as an older adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and younger by Stacy Martin). She's rescued by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a bookish loner who takes her back to his flat for tea and pastry. There, Joe unburdens herself of her long, sordid sexual history—with a heaping side dish of self-loathing—to the sympathetic, analytic Seligman. "I love my cunt and my filthy dirty lust," she proclaims, while simultaneously indicting herself as a terrible, awful person.
In Volume 1 of Nymphomaniac we see Joe discover her sexuality at age two, lose her virginity as a teen in a mechanical exercise with a boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), and engage in competitive "sport fucking" on commuter trains. Soon she's juggling ten lovers a day, taking on all comers with such indiscriminate abandon we begin to feel sorry for her gynecologist.
The coltish Martin has the looks and the lubricity to make these proceedings full-on pornographic. Nor does von Trier shy from showing skin—albeit with the help of digitally inserted body-doubles. But von Trier never lets the sex speak for itself. Instead, he has Seligman interrupt with (occasionally) germane, always pedantic "explications" of Joe's adventures, likening her behavior to everything from the art of fly-fishing to the progression of Fibonacci numbers. Everything, that is, but the simple judgment of old-time religion, which Joe professes to reject. but fears anyway.
By placing the action in so obvious a frame, von Trier is intentionally frustrating his audience, giving them no cues of how to react to the couplings onscreen. Joe never really seems to enjoy herself, yet clearly gets something out of the sense of control she gains over men. Seligman analyzes, but he's clearly out of his depth, and fails either to illuminate Joe's acts nor redeem them. To most audiences, this ambivalence reads neither as conventional drama, nor honest pornography. In von Trier's world, however, it's the only defensible place to stand before the conundrum of sexual desire in the post-Puritanical West.
Like the proverbial elephant approached by different blind men, the Nymphomaniac you get varies depending on the obscenity laws where you live. International release versions of the film are all abridgements of von Trier's original, unexpurgated, five-and-a-half hour version (which, no doubt, is headed for DVD release on its own). US audiences get something cut down to four hours and divided into two parts, with most of the penetrative sex removed. Volume 1 isn't exactly unprecedented stuff: to cite but one example, the endless lovemaking scenes in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color seem just as gratuitous as anything in von Trier's movie. The difference is that, in the current political environment, watching a young woman explore lesbian sex still has an air of joyous self-discovery about it. Von Trier's hetero- humpings, meanwhile, are just problematic and sad.
In the end, the first half of Nymphomaniac isn't very satisfying on its own. Von Trier succeeds in titillating and alienating us at the same time, but to what end we can't yet see. In Volume 2 (opening domestically on April 18), the adult Joe (Gainsbourg) embarks for different, even more dangerous territory. A married woman now, and a mother, she explores the farther reaches of self-degradation with an inventive sadist (Jamie Bell). Here, and later when Joe takes on a protégé (Mia Goth) straight from a foster home, von Trier's real object finally becomes clear: he wants to upend our complacence by turning moral categories inside out, showing the good in the bad and the bad in the good. In the end, it becomes much like the public comments he made several years ago at Cannes, when he dared express empathy for Adolf Hitler ("I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi…I understand Hitler…"). His audience gasped, and von Trier was banned from the rest of the festival. Nymphomaniac is nothing less than a five hour enlargement of this sentiment, as von Trier (through the mouth of Joe) dares express empathy for unrepentant sex addicts and pedophiles struggling to bury their forbidden lusts, among other types categorically rejected by polite society. Neither Joe nor Seligman are "on their knees" before religion, but von Trier's radical empathy surely qualifies as deeply Christian, if we pay attention to what Jesus actually said.
What seems most unique about von Trier, though, is that he still believes in the transfigurative power of film. At one point, he has Joe declare that she wants to challenge "the love-obsessed society"— the values that sanctify romantic possessiveness and obsession over the simple pleasure of the physical act—and there's no doubt that von Trier has some sympathy for what she says. Even more remarkable, he still believes that making movies can make a difference in how we view such basic issues—as if this were the early 1960's, when the art of cinema still mattered. In this sense, von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, Antichrist) is worth watching even when he fails. His kind is unlikely to be around much longer.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro