Review: Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II

Nymphomaniac (7b)

Despite what you may have been led to believe, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac may well be the Danish auteur’s most accessible work in years.

Detailing the life of protagonist, Joe—played initially by Stacy Martin in the opening chapters, and in later sections and during the film’s framing scenes by Charlotte Gainsbourg—the five-and-a-half hour long film has gained a certain amount of notoriety due mostly to von Trier’s reputation and the use of digitally mapped unsimulated sex into scenes involving the principal cast.

This method is an evolution of von Trier’s previous use of “porn body doubles” in 2009’s Antichrist. This approach is also interesting as it marks the artistic overlap between the handful of pornographic films made by von Trier’s film company, Zentropa, and the director’s mainstream work.

Exploring one woman’s sexual awakening and desire, Nymphomaniac follows the character of Joe from her youth through a number of sexual partners and a variety of crises, contrasting images of graphic intercourse with musings on human nature, religion, race, loss and eventual corruption.

A variety of expressions of romance and contrasting infidelities are present in the film, from early masturbation, the loss of virginity, teenage lust, eventual romance, and the decline into physical pain as stimulation.

Yet in none of these set pieces, each housed within one of the film’s eight chapters, is there a sense of gratuity, in fact it is plausible to regard Nymphomaniac as a film as equally about romance as it is about sex.

The relationship between Joe and her various lovers, romantic and lustful both, is beautifully and tragically portrayed whilst still retaining a sense of humour.

Nymphomaniac (19b)There are also several sequences where the narrative plays out as that most quaint of British cinematic traditions, the period drama, with rural England—played here by Germany and Belgium due to von Trier’s intense fear of flying preventing him from filming abroad—forming the backdrop for the romance between Joe and recurring love interest, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), her tenderly brutal transactions with the alarmingly unassuming looking sadist, K (Jamie Bell), and her later role as mentor and surrogate parent to P (Mia Goth).

There are moments of comedy, both in the traditional sense—Joe and Jerôme’s tentative courtship—and in the darker sense—Mrs. H (Uma Thurman)’s confrontation over Joe’s relationship with her husband—and it is in this more relaxed context that von Trier is at his best in terms of exploring taboo.

One of the most subtle contrasting ideas presented in the film is the suggestion of Joe’s experience as a sort of satanic inversion of the aesthetic ideals of traditional Christianity, especially Catholicism. At several points, the attention of the audience is diverted from the linear narrative of Joe’s life to highlight matters of religion comparison—the musical transition between B to F, perceived by medieval theologians to be of Satanic origin, the vision Joe receives during her first orgasm — all of which harken back to themes present in earlier works by von Trier and his own feelings towards religion.

This is the most engaging aspect of the film; Joe’s celebration of the flesh despite the cost, and the pleasure and pain this brings to her. It is this notion, the idea of sexual experience as comparative with religious experience that, whilst not exactly new, adds an unexpected dimension to the work.

At the other end of the spectrum are von Trier’s more forceful ruminations on race and sadism.

The first regards a scenario in which Joe approaches a young African man, and finds herself later in a hotel room with the young man and his male companion. The two men then enter into a debate in a language she does not understand regarding which of them should penetrate her vagina, and which should penetrate her rectum.

The scene is presented in an uncomfortably light-hearted manner which may not sit well with some viewers and von Trier later uses the scene to explore the linguistic taboos of racially insensitive words, with Joe’s pugnacious use of terminology highlighting a fundamental insensitivity in the English language that often masquerades as social conscience.

It is hard to vouch for this view, but it is important to consider the director’s role as a commentator despite the danger that many may use this scene as a way of validating opinions of von Trier’s racism based on statements at the 64th Cannes Film Festival in 2011 that led to him being declared persona non grata.

During a brief question and answer section following the screening of the UK premiere, actor Stellan Skarsgård, who plays the role of Joe’s confessor figure, Seligman in the film’s framing sequence, spoke of his admiration for von Trier as a director, referring to him as “vulnerable”, a description surely at odds with his interpretation in the public eye.

Nymphomaniac (10b)The second scenario, mostly exhibited within the film’s sixth chapter, The Eastern and the Western Church (The Silent Duck), depicts Joe’s increasing frustrations and her exploration of sadomasochism. Again, as with the scenes of intercourse, the violence expressed is never gratuitous yet remains suitably brutal and concise. There is even a sense of tenderness in the way in which K treats Joe as he beats her bare buttocks with a riding crop.

The playfulness and singular determination of the character of Joe likewise never diminishes, as, in triumph she learns to sexually stimulate herself during the beatings despite K’s refusal to engage in traditional penetrative sex.

Unlike von Trier’s two recent films, Antichrist and Melancholia, there is no fantastical element present in Nymphomaniac, and yet despite this the film shares much in common with these releases, a sense of stark realism and a determination to not shy away from the questions raised by the behaviour of its principal characters.

Whilst perhaps lacking the intensity of the director’s earlier work such as The Idiots, Nymphomaniac remains an astounding and accomplished work, proving that there is more to Von Trier than brutality and outrage.

You may not wish to hear me say this, but Nymphomaniac might actually be the most perfect date movie made to date.

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