The First Reviews for Lars von Trier’s Erotic Odyssey ‘Nymphomaniac’ Have Arrived
It’s been over two years since I sat in a room with Charlotte Gainsbourg and the cast of Lars von Trier’s last doomsday ballet masterpiece Melancholia. After we were done chatting about the film, Gainsbourg and Alexander Skarsgard shared the realization that she’d be starring in Lars’ next film alongside his father Stellan, saying she wasn’t even entirely sure of the plot but signed on because, well, it’s Lars. Naturally, I was intrigued. And in obsessively reading Nils Thorsen’s Longing for the End of the World interview with Lars, the notorious auteur said:
Why do all lines have to be about something? A plot. When books have a red thread, they only brush it momentarily! Whereas a film is completely tied to the plot. Even a Tarkovsky film has nowhere near the depth of a novel. It could be fun to take some of the novel’s qualities—even that they talk nineteen to the dozen, which is why I like—and include that.
I’m researching nymphomania. And Marquis de Sade. I’ve found that 40 percent of all nymphomaniacs are also cutters…But again, it’s politically incorrect to speak of nymphomania, because the concept in itself is seen to indicate that we cannot relate to female sexuality. As I understand, many of them cannot obtain satisfaction, so they use sex like cutting because it is something within their control. I suppose they carry around a fear or pain they conceal beneath…But it’s no fun if they’re humping away all the time, then it’ll just be a porn flick.
And in the same interview, he also went on to say that he gave Peter Aalbaek (with whom he co-founded Zentropa), “two titles: Shit in the Bedsore or The Nymphomaniac.” So there’s was.
But now, of course simply titled Nymphomaniac, after much anticipation, the first reviews of the film are in! So if you’re understandingly waiting to have the film reveal itself for you upon its US release, read no further. But if you’ve been teased too far and can’t help but give into your curiosity, take a look below.
Those familiar with von Trier’s work will pick up on connections between his earlier films and “Nymphomaniac,” as when Jerome’s offers to let Jo pursue her lost orgasm with other lovers — a point of overlap with Skarsgard’s unorthodox sexual arrangement in “Breaking the Waves.” In the nearly two decades since von Trier unveiled the Dogma 95 manifesto, his work has become increasingly provocative, from integrating real sex in “The Idiots” to figuratively shaking his fist at God with “Antichrist.” ….It’s one thing to declare sex a fact of life and insist that audiences confront their unease at seeing it depicted (or, equally constructive, their intense excitation at its mere mention), but quite another to fashion a fictional woman’s life around nothing but sex. As courageously depicted by Gainsbourg, Jo is ultimately a tragic character. In the film’s best-written scene, she outs a pedophile in deep denial of his own impulses, inadvertently revealing the irony (and promised moral crux) of her situation: Despite all the physical contact she achieves with strangers, Jo suffers from profound loneliness. Her story is a bid for a different sort of connection, over which the ever-cynical von Trier maintains the last laugh, sure to ring louder when the uncut version is unveiled next year.
Hang on to your seat back, your Bible, or the hand of a friend. Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac bludgeons the body and tenderises the soul. It is perplexing, preposterous and utterly fascinating; a false bill of goods in that it’s a film about sex that is deliberately unsexy and a long, garrulous story (two volumes, four hours) that largely talks to itself. Those naked figures in motion are just a distraction. To blunder in on Nymphomaniac is to catch the sight of a middle-aged Dane masturbating alone in a darkened room. It may be sensational, it might even be art. But I’m not sure it is intended for public consumption…How was it for you? How was it for me? Nymphomaniac doesn’t care. It goes about things its own way, in the service of its own pleasure, manhandling the audience from one position to the next, occasionally snickering at its own private jokes and daring us to decipher them. Personally I found this a bruising, gruelling experience and yet the film has stayed with me. It is so laden with highly charged set pieces, so dappled with haunting ideas and bold flights of fancy that it finally achieves a kind of slow-burn transcendence. Nymphomaniac annoys me, repels me, and I think I might love it. It’s an abusive relationship; I need to see it again.
By using music and split-screen in this sequence, as well as archival footage of animals and material specifically shot for the film, one senses both the childlike glee of von Trier as a filmmaker in full command of all the possibilities that his film has to offer and his interest in thinking things through. At its best, the film doesn’t strain for meaning but instead treats all of its intellectualizing as a lark that can be taken seriously but doesn’t need to be.
However, perhaps it’s best to bear in mind this line of dialog, also from chapter five and uttered by Joe: “How do you think you’ll get the most out of the story — by believing or not believing in it?”…After two earlier films with von Trier, “Antichrist” and “Melancholia,” this third collaboration represents Charlotte Gainsbourg’s most fearless and also finest hour as she carries the film with ease. To say her character isn’t easy to love would be an understatement, but Gainsbourg manages to turn Joe into more than just a mouthpiece of von Trier’s ideas. She’s a living, breathing human being who perhaps lacks the intellectual understanding to analyze what she’s doing or why she’s doing it — but whose will to live makes her forge ahead no matter what.
The depiction of sex is at all times a narratively essential illustration of Joe’s calling, chronicling the light, dark, funny and painful places that it takes her. 90 minutes are missing from this version and we can only guess at what this feature’s worth of missing run-time adds to the picture. ‘Nymphomania’ and its clinical alternative label ‘sex addiction’ are toyed with and it is down to the viewer to decide where the line is between a healthy appetite and something that might be deemed more pathological.
The film is not a perfect work and vacillates greatly in quality, particularly in Volume Two, but the successful sequences are so rich in thought-provoking representations of big subjects and so distinctively the work of its singular and taboo-flouting director that it all makes for essential viewing.
Lars Von Trier’s wild, sprawling ‘Nymphomaniac’ is an orgy of the sublime and the ridiculous. It exists in two versions of differing lengths and explicitness. This is the first episode of a shorter, cleaner version (still, it’s unlikely to play in Dubai or Idaho). It opens with a disclaimer stating that the director wasn’t involved in the editing – although it has been cut with his permission from the longer, Lars-approved film. You feel short-changed: whose film is it then? What am I missing? Bigger cocks? More close-ups of injured, over-exercised clitorises? Oh yes, there’s nothing coy about it….Is there any sign here of a chastened Von Trier after the ‘I’m a Nazi’ scandal that engulfed him at Cannes in 2011? You only have to hear Skarsgård’s character musing on how non-active paedophiles ‘deserve a medal’ or see Gainsbourg sandwiched between two African immigrants with hard-ons to know the answer. He might not have been in control of the edit of this version of his film (the uncut version will emerge later), but the frank, unflinching and playful two-part ‘Nymphomaniac’ couldn’t have been made by anyone else.
In male-written literature, Don Juan-type characters have most often been portrayed with a certain amount of envy and admiration but with the moral caveat of having lived “empty” lives. With Joe, there is no sense of fun, of teasing, of enjoying her powers of manipulation. Nor does she exhibit genuine flirtatiousness or joie de vivre. Part of this no doubt stems from von Trier’s own heaviness and melancholic tendancies (although he has directed genuinely funny work, especially The Idiots), but it must also derives from newcomer Martin’s inexperience and pervasive inexpressiveness. The whole temperature of a film can be heavily influenced, even determined, by the heat a particular actress provides, so one can only wonder what Nymphomaniac would have been like had von Trier sought and found an equivalent of, say, Julie Christie in Billy Liar, Eva Green in The Dreamers or Jennifer Lawrence in almost anything…Novelistic in its chapter-designated structure, anecdotal richness and sensitivity to life’s different stages, Nymphomaniac nonetheless shortchanges its central figure by so narrowly defining her. Despite spending four hours with her, except when she’s with her father we seldom view her in anything but a sexual context; she never evinces any other interests and her reflective comments are invariably narcissistic, if negatively so.
In keeping with this, the entirely game Martin and Gainsbourg work in a tightly channeled emotional range, one that rarely allows Joe to look like she’s having any fun. For most people, sex is a diversion or escape from ordinary life and commonplace sensations; when you organize your life to squeeze in ten lovers per day, sex itself becomes the daily grind. Discovering the truth about herself finally brings Joe personal liberation in a certain way, but it still provides no happiness. The spiritual catharsis achieved by von Trier’s greatest heroine, Bess, in Breaking the Waves, eludes Joe, who remains a prisoner of the physical.
A fascinating work despite it’s slightly chaotic side with a multitude of occult sub-readings and a few pointless provocations slipped in by Lars von Trier on the topic of his alleged anti-Semitism, Nymphomaniac – Part 1 is an added proof of the virtuosity of a filmmaker torn between the flesh and the spirit, a great disturbed artist working on the chaotic border between notions of good and evil, a director navigating from German metal band Rammstein to the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. A whole programme filled and consumed with excess (until the ultimate vanity of mentioning that the film is a “short and censured version”, “without his involvement”) that will hit European theatres as of December 25.