Michael C. here fresh from a four hour romp through Lars von Trier's sexual subconscious. First a review, then a hot shower. Or five.
It’s tough to think of a recent film more resistant to review than Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Not only does it vacillate wildly in quality between brilliant and dreadful, but it also feels redundant to review a movie so thoroughly engaged in the act of reviewing itself.
We are first introduced to Charlotte Gainsborg’s Joe laying beaten and unconscious in an alley. When Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman picks her up off the ground and gives her a place to rest, she narrates her lifelong saga of sexual exploration to him by way of lengthy explanation for her current state. [More]
An asexual virgin, Seligman plays like a preemptive parody of the critical response to the film. His first instinct is to interrupt Joe’s story at every turn with scholarly digressions that reduce Joe’s pain and suffering to intellectual masturbation. Yet even here von Trier is one step ahead, having Skarsgård’s character protest this reading of his character. “Are you mocking me?” he demands after Joe spins a loopy tale involving a spontaneous orgasm that results in a vision of the Whore of Babylon. Joe responds that it's probably best if he just accepts the story at face value. She is surely correct. Unpacking Nymphomaniac’s dense tangle of irony and references is daunting, bordering on impossible. But if you toss it all aside is there anything real to engage with?
Nyphomaniac will likely be a dreary affair for those with no interest in engaging in puckish combat with the director. Von Trier needles us, pushes our boundaries and tests our tolerance for his bizarre choices. His casting decisions often defy not only taste but story logic. He careens into inexplicable plot detours. He parades a series of cock photos across the screen. He puts Joe in a racially charged encounter with two black man to tempt us into a fit of politically correct outrage. Anything, it seems, to get a rise out of the viewer.
If you surrender yourself to play the director’s games there is a lot to relish in Nymphomaniac. I was certainly never bored, which is saying a lot for a four hour exploration of sexual dysfunction where the hero is numb to pleasure. There is a surprising amount of humor and Gainsborg gives a ferocious performance that transcends the film’s detached structure. Plus at some point you simply have to applaud the director for drawing us so completely into his world. In any other film, if the lead character embarked on an out of nowhere, late-in-the-film career as a loan shark’s enforcer, audiences would howl with disbelief. In Nymphomaniac somehow it makes perfect sense.
Still, if the freedom granted the film to follow Joe’s journey on her every tangent is liberating, it’s also limiting. There is a ceiling to how much you can invest in a film that it is constantly stepping back to intellectualize. Even when one of the film’s individual chapters plays like gangbusters it remains stubbornly self-contained. Uma Thurman’s soon-to-be-legendary single scene as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s many conquests justifies the whole four hours on its own, but it doesn’t add any momentum to the story. It just blows through the film like a tornado. Likewise when a section isn’t working (everything involving Christian Slater as Joe’s father, for example) there is nothing to carry us through the dead stretch.
In Nymphomaniac’s second half Joe loses her ability to orgasm and we trace her increasingly extreme measures to regain her sexual sensation, including a harrowing encounter with a sadist that guarantees you will never look at Jamie Bell the same way again. As the film wore on into its fourth hour, I could relate to Joe’s dilemma because I too lost the ability to feel pleasure in being fucked with. Rarely is it not worth the effort to grapple with von Trier but after a while you begin to suspect he’s rigged the game. If he succeeds in provoking us into protesting he wins by getting us to play the close-minded prude. If we go along with him, he laughs at us for dancing to his tune. The ending of the film, in particular, is so perfunctory it appears to be there as contemptuous jab to anyone foolish enough to care about these characters.
In this way Nymphomaniac succeeds in simulating the experience of a sex addict for the viewer. It goes through the motions of stimulating the audience, but when it's over one can't help feeling empty, and more than a bit used.
Oscar Chances: As much fun as it would be to watch Helen Mirren come out and read some lofty award show pablum to introduce a clip of, say, Jamie Bell slapping Charlotte Gainsbourg with a glove full of nickels, no, the Academy will not be acknowledging this film's existence.