Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II, film review: Confessions of an arch provocateur

(18) Dir. Lars von Trier; Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, 241mins

"It will be long," warns Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) at the start of Lars von Trier's controversy-baiting diptych about the sex life of a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac and sinner. (Cinemas will show both feature-length volumes separately, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to see one without the other.) "And moral, I'm afraid." To which we should add that it will not be to everyone's taste. And it certainly isn't for those who have found the cumulative masochistic suffering of Von Trier's earlier female characters unpalatable.

But it is funny as well as punishing and bleak. It is erudite, digressive, teasing, self-aware, self-mocking, and impossible to mistake for the work of anyone else.

Joe unburdens herself, in eight discrete chapters, to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a passing ascetic confessor who has found her lying bruised and bloodied in a cobbled London alleyway. Acting as a kind of one-man Greek chorus, he interjects with musings on everything from fly-fishing and Fibonacci numbers to Zeno's paradox and the devil's interval – perhaps simply because he finds the detail of her story too sordid, but more likely in an effort to attach some meaning to what is otherwise a pointlessly miserable story about lovelessness and degradation. "This is nothing more than a blasphemous retelling of the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain," he exclaims at one point. By which time, you know he's over-reaching.

But depending on which side of the film's Platonic dialogue you side with, Nymphomaniac is either the thoroughly miserable story of a woman who discovers too late that love is not just a bourgeois construct, and that you can neither entirely validate or entirely negate the self with sex alone; or it is a profane celebration of the human condition and all of its varied glories and bathetic weaknesses. You really can choose to go either way.

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