Nymphomaniac review: Lars Von Trier's sex epic is brilliant but frustrating

Double bill lacks emotional kick and ends as mysteriously as it begins

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Lars Von Trier films are invariably exercises in anti-climax. They promise revelations and secret knowledge that, in the end, they can never quite deliver.

After all, he is a Danish arthouse director in his late 50s, working on relatively modest budgets while tackling the biggest themes imaginable - the end of the world in Melancholia (2011), the origins of evil in Antichrist (2009), and, now, in his two Nymphomaniac films, the nature of female sexuality.

The fascination of his work lies in its boldness, eccentricity and ambition. If he is going to fail, he always seems determined to do so on the grandest scale imaginable.

The Nymphomaniac films see Von Trier at his most perverse and ingenious. He takes his task,to tell the story of the erotic life of a woman from birth to the age of 50, very seriously indeed.

The films are brilliant but frustrating by turns. Imagine Val Guest’s 70s British sex romp Confessions Of A Window Cleaner re-made by Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky and you’ll come close to the essence of what Von Trier is striving for here.

He even throws in a few references to Tarkovsky’s most austere film, Andrei Rublev (about a medieval Russian icon painter), to underline his seriousness. Although there is humour here, the storytelling is dark and increasingly oppressive.

The tone is set by the brutal Rammstein “industrial metal” music heard on the soundtrack early on. We see Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in an alleyway, crumpled and bleeding. She is led home by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a seemingly kindly stranger. He acts as her father confessor as she reminisces about her sexual life, explaining over eight different chapters how she came to be abandoned in that alleyway.

In preparation for the film, Von Trier did his own Shere Hite-like research, speaking to women friends about their sexual lives and fantasies. There is still the sense, though, that Joe is a fantasy figure - yet another of the director’s long-suffering heroines, like Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves or Bjork in Dancer In The Dark.

Her sexual life causes her as much grief as it gives her pleasure. “I don’t know where we get our sexuality from or where tendencies of this kind come from. It’s probably a perversion created in our childhood,” she laments of her own increasingly masochistic desires and attraction toward “the dangerous men.” Over time, he becomes a “sexual outcast.”

Disconcertingly, Nymphomaniac lacks any sense of period or place. At times, we seem to be in early 70s Britain. However, the alleyway in which Joe is beaten up is obviously a studio set. So is Seligman’s barely furnished apartment. The accents of the main characters do nothing to clarify matters. As Jerome, Joe’s first lover, Shia LaBoeuf speaks with a Dick van Dyke-like English accent while Skarsgård still has a middle European ring to his voice. web-nymphomaniac.jpg

As in his pared down earlier films Dogville and Manderlay, Von Trier is continually laying bare his own devices, signalling that this is a self-reflexive formal exercise as much as it is a conventional drama.

Seligman tries to make sense of Joe’s reminiscences by embarking on his own digressions about everything from fly fishing to Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories. There are asides about trees (a passion of Joe’s father, stoically played by Christian Slater) and Fibonacci numbers, montages of genitals, uses of split screen, black and white scenes and even references to Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

The first volume is the lighter and more playful. Joe (portrayed as a younger woman by Stacy Martin) is gleefully anarchic. She and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) despise the idea of “love” and see sex as a high jinks form of youthful protest. In one riotously bawdy scene, the two travel on a train, trying to seduce as many men as possible as part of a bet to win a bag of sweets.

Martin plays Joe in an engagingly laid back way, fascinated and amused by her many lovers, who come in all shapes and sizes. There’s a wonderful cameo from Uma Thurman as Mrs H, a well-spoken middle class wife whose husband has run off and tried to set up home with Joe. She brings her children along to meet her husband’s mistress and to show them “the whoring bed.” Thurman is desperate, vengeful but absurdly polite.

Volume 1 has its traumatic moments - most notably a hospital death bed scene - but is positively breezy by comparison with the second volume. Here, Joe (played with a melancholic intensity by Gainsbourg) really gets to grips with what she calls her “filthy, dirty lust.” She endures - and enjoys - whippings at the hands of Jamie Bell’s “master.” Bizarrely, she ends up in the “shady side of the debt collecting business,” working for Willem Dafoe’s very sinister businessman. Thanks to her knowledge of male sexuality, she excels at this line of her work. There is one very grim scene in which she exposes a victim’s paedophilic tendencies in order to force him to pay a debt.

Von Trier’s thesis, articulated through Joe, is that “sexuality is the strongest force in human beings.” His problem is that it is also the most inscrutable. The Danish director has no fear at all of taboos and is ready to trample onto what would be forbidden ground for more conventional filmmakers.

Nymphomaniac is fascinating as an intellectual case study. There is a heroic striving from Joe to understand her own behaviour and desires. This double bill intimate epic doesn’t feel prurient at all but, strangely, it doesn’t have the emotional kick that might have been expected either - and it ends as mysteriously as it begins.

Nymphomaniac Parts I and II will be shown in cinemas nationwide as a double bill Saturday 22nd February before being released in cinemas separately from next week onwards.