Nymph( )maniac (2014) Volumes I & II
That Lars Von Trier fella is not one to shy away from controversy now is he? Not content with invoking a political firestorm at Cannes with some rather ill-judged remarks on the holocaust he was ejected from the crosiette, a further inducement to critical hatred after he dedicated his previous film Antichrist to the patron saint of Soviet cinema Andrei Tarkovsky. How dare this impotent upstart compare himself to one of cinemas great visionaries the critical firmament seemed to say, so when it was announced that his next film would be an uncompromising expose of one woman’s sexual odyssey entitled Nymphomaniac the reaction, as predicated, was further clutching of breasts, gnashing of teeth and impertinent hammering at keyboards. Curiously since the film – and just to get this straight it really is one film neatly divided into two screening sessions but I’ll come back to that later – since the film’s release the reaction has been somewhat muted from the likes of the Daily Heil anyway, an unexpected reaction as it has garnered serious praise from the expected outlets – Time Out, Sight & Sound, Film Comment – from its limited but highly publicised release considering its rather provocative and attention seeking marketing campaign. Now I had tickets to see this over at the prestigious Curzon in Mayfair during its initial release with a satellite delivered Q&A with members of the movie(s) cast and crew, the only slight complication being that this was scheduled for the evening of the same day that I saw Winter’s Tale. Consequently that frigid film knocked all inclination of spending a further gruelling four hours at the cinema out of my snowflake addled mind, and in a curious sense I had an irresistible urge to get in front of a computer and let the words tumble out of me as to that screening experience, sometimes, for some reason it just seems to work out that way. Nevertheless Nymphomaniac has been teasing me for the past fortnight, I think if anyone considers themselves a ‘serious’ cineaste then there are is a harem of directors whose work you instinctively have to make every effort to see (Almodovar, Haneke, Von Trier, Reygadas, Dumont, Martel, Weerasethakul, Kiarostami, Kar-wai and Sokurov to pretentiously name but a few) even if some of those figures certainly don’t depress my g-spot; I mean did you see the last Almodovar? It was absolutely terrible, and I thought Post Tenebras Lux was art-house engineered incoherence with a few controversial sequences thrown in simply to inflame and ‘challenge’ a pampered bourgeois critical fraternity. A-hem. Anyway, as usual I digress as we’re here to endure a particularly gruelling day at the local art cinema, to partake in extreme nudity, maximum genitals and barely legal art-house, a salacious saga of one womans worship at the altar of fornication.
England, winter, and in a slush choked sordid back alley a woman lies unconscious, bloodied and bruised. A passing middle-aged bachelor and self-educated scholar named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) takes pity on the woman and takes her back to his flat to tend to her wounds and patch her up, inquiring gently into her condition he asks her to recant her story and explain how she came to be in such dire straits. Her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, peerless and fearless) and her tale is a tawdry and tantalizing journey into the heart of human darkness, as she explains she is a nymphomaniac whose entire life, drive and purpose has been defined by her unquenchable sexual appetite. Dividing the two films into eight distinct chapters which move historically through her life this partitioning (a repeated Von Trier narrative technique in this final part of his so-called depression trilogy) betray a formal theatrical structure, interspersed with Joe and Seligman’s philosophical bedside musing on religious idolatry, the Fibonacci equation, scientific curiosity and the artistic method, as Gainsbourg’s matter-of-fact voiceover explains her slow mental disintegration. In the first film the twentysomething Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin with a shockingly unconscious display of desire, whilst Christian Slater is absurdly mis-cast as her father the film also features Shia LaBeouf as one of Joe’s early and crucial obsessions, the impressive cast further supported by Willem Dafoe, an extremely disturbing Jamie Bell and a career best Uma Thurman as jilted wife Mrs. H. The second film features Joe played by Gainsbourg in the more recent years and months of her life as a middle-aged woman , where the irrevocable drive of her appetites lead her uncontrollably into the dangerous realms of extreme sexual methods, and the film lurches into extremely difficult to watch areas which are not for the faint of heart or easily offended – consider yourself warned.
If you’ll forgive the very obvious ‘pun’ this is a very hard film from a fearless director, it’s hard in terms of subject matter and its hard in terms of run-time, of unflinching realism and occasional brutality, and it raises some very hard questions about our lust fuelled drives divorced from any social decorum failsafe, of total surrender to our animalistic instincts which are controlled by our allegedly rational cognition. As you’d expect the sex is frequent and appropriately graphic but never gratuitous, it doesn’t feel that despite his public persona that Von Trier is intentionally out to shock, and not for a nano-second does it amorously weave into the area of titillation, especially in volume II the desperate coupling becomes horribly sleazy and shameful rather than sensuous or arousing. Like Joe’s seemingly infinite sex drive the film is gratuitous in terms of certain scenes and sequences which feel ill-executed and maybe superfluous to the central odyssey, but the film also has some immensely powerful encounters, particularly for me the blackly comedy confrontation between the jilted Uma Thurman and Joe where she first begins to see the consequences of her actions upon other lives, the destruction wrought by her not harnessing and controlling her lust, leaving families and lovers shattered in her wake. Given the radioactive material that he is handling here I’d also anticipated the predictable accusations of misogyny, again not so as there is not for one second any notion of slut-shaming, at least in Joe’s initial experimentation sex is shown as a natural, inquisitive and positive thing, its only when that pleasure and passion is warped into a neurosis of power and domination that it becomes poisoned and irradiated, the power of her cunt* as she so eloquently puts it to make men do her bidding. It’s a small anecdotal matter but I was interested to see how many single women also turned out to see the film, not single as in coupled up of course I mean singular as on their own sans partner or friends, a noticeable number in my theatre which I chalk down to the rarity of a film with a central female character which isn’t a fucking formula Rom-Com, it just proves that there is an audience out there for material where the Bechtel test is submissively beaten to humiliation. In one blazingly truthful observation toward the end of the film a character makes the point that if a man had conducted themselves this way, if he bedded a dozen conquests a night and left a wife and a family in order to pursue his uncontrollable sexual ambitions then it would barely elicit a shrug, a shared understanding from most members of society such are the genital politics of contemporary society, but if the sexes are reversed then the opinion becomes quite, quite different, as Joe is outcast and shunned, and ultimately forced further into the dangerous eaves of polite civilisation.
I hate to resort to the cliché dictionary but yes Gainsbourg is just fearless, she really is one of the most vehement, quietly brilliant actresses working today whom always seems to get overlooked by the likes of your Cate Blanchet’s, the Emma Thompson’s or Meryl Streep’s of the industry, and in general it is amusing to me to see American actors flock to Von Trier despite the gruelling working methods and material in order to develop their career and education. The experience seems to have quite an impact on ole ‘face of beef’ LaBeouf who has been making quite the spectacle of himself at press conferences and premieres, if he went ‘method’ during shooting it’s not difficult to see why. Whilst this was a punishing four hours at the flicks in all three senses of a physical, emotional and intellectual journey it’s an admirable achievement, and maybe a year or so down the line I can face another gaze into Joe’s abyss with the uncircumcised first episode which has almost a full half hour of material excised due to its uncompromising nature – given the severity of the flesh already being exposed I honestly dread to imagine what that might be. What I think will lure Nymphomaniac onto further trysts is the coupling of the wider social and historical musings that Spielman offers in response to Joe’s pornographic pilgrimage, it’s that union of the spiritual searching within the wider queries of the human condition which fondle the depthless mysteries of lust, of how it is possible to throw your entire life away in a pathetic quest to sate a never satisfied thirst, does the body rule the mind or the reverse? I dunno. An increasingly touching relationship stiffens throughout the film where both man and woman seem to judge each other on their own terms independent of the physical impulse, offering a small chink of forlorn hope for rational relations before Von Trier exterminates with ruthless ferocity any optimism just as the credits roll. Nymphomaniac is the work of an elite filmmaker working at the peak of his powers and bravery, asking difficult questions of an adult audience, unencumbered by the demands of box-office appeasement – carnal, essential viewing for those who like to watch;
*Well, it’s taken six long years but we’ve finally deployed the ‘c’ word here. I thought I’d save it for something special….I’d apologise but I reserve your clemency for the Morrissey quote………