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Tuesday
Apr082014

Review: Nymphomaniac: Parts I & II

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.

 

Grade: B- 
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.

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Reader Comments (15)

I hated it.

SO.

MUCH.

I just didn't care about *anything*. The first half has some dark humor and Uma's scene is a masterclass in passive aggression but other than that, it just slogged on and on. The ending made me frothy with rage.

Plus, what was with Shia LaBeouf's "accent"?

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

See, to me this film is a flat-out masterpiece, and I'm confused as to why it isn't getting the Melancholia-level acclaim it so warrants.

It's far from perfect, sure, but perfection makes things airless, and Nympomaniac is anything but.

A rich, sprawling, shapeshifting world unto itself with one of the most awesomely, intricately realised protagonists (not to mention, female protagonists) in years.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Exactly how I felt about it. I'd add that it bothered me that for as explicit as the film was, it wasn't all that demonstrative about her sexuality. When she started talking about not being able to orgasm anymore, all I could think was, "wait......she WAS coming before??"

Still, I was more amused by Lars's little games than I have been in the past. I do so wish he would go back to making movies instead of these provocations, but I suppose all you can do is work with what you've got. (aka, hello Uma/Jamie Bell.....)

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Not even Oscar chance hopes for Uma?

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

@Ryan--Unlikely, if for no other reason that it's an independent distributor. Magnolia Pictures doesn't have the $$ for a major category campaign.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Haven't seen the full piece yet, but I quite enjoyed part 1 and its noodly, experimental vibe. Von Trier riffing and provoking and wandering down narrative cul de sacs is fine with me, but I agree that it ends up being a "less than the sum of its parts" type of deal. For me it's well off the mark from his best work, but that's okay - a fascinating mess if still fascinating.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Ryan - In a just world Uma would be in the conversation, but let's not kid ourselves. A ten foot pole would not be long enough for the distance the Academy keeps from a film like this. More like four or five ten foot poles tied together.

Roark - I'm largely in agreement. If I were going thumbs up or down, I'd have to land on up, if only because there are parts that work so well they shouldn't be missed.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

Tarantino - Thurman - Von Trier: Axis of Cinematic Evil.

The very fact that her scene is being touted as the "must-see" element guarantees that I'll be avoiding this film. I just can't.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

if the oscars wouldnt touch Blue is the Warmest Color.... they certainly arent having any of this!

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Re - Uma and the Oscar question.

The acclaim for her scene got me wondering, not if she would nominated, since I agree the movie's off the radar, but if she was even eligible. As far as I know, the movie was released on VOD before it was released in theatres, so wouldn't she be in a Linda Fiorentino situation? Or has that rule changed since 1994?

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Paul Outlaw: You might not like them, but even if I didn't like them, I can't buy that Tarantino, Thurman and Von Trier are bad enough to label an "Axis of Cinematic Evil." That should be for guys like Chester Turner Novell, Sean McNamara or Seltzerberg. (At least for them, that's NOT an overblown statement.)

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Please, Paul. If there's one thing we don't tolerate here on the Internet, it's hyperbole.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C

The first part is excellent. Uma is great.

The second part is boring and the end is awful.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo - Brazil

Thank you for the reminder, Michael C. I completely forgot where I was!

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I watched the first film, expecting a lot because I loved Melancholia, and I was sorely disappointed. I actually thought it was awful. Like, really bad. I didn't even bother watching the second film because after that I had no desire to.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

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