Despite the accolades he’s amassed over the course of his career, Lars von Trier in 2014 is more commonly a topic of discussion than a receptor of praise. Following the release of 1996’s Breaking the Waves, he was hotly tipped to be the next great European auteur, especially in light of the bold Dogme 95 manifesto which he and fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg distributed at Cannes in 1995. He was perceived as a brave and talented filmmaker, but unfortunately this has been overshadowed by his eagerness to provoke, and nowadays merely speaking von Trier’s name is guaranteed to get some kind of reaction out of anyone who’s interested in cinema.
This is clearly what the man’s been aiming for, and praise where it’s due, he’s achieved it. When the news hit that he was making a five-and-a-half-hour movie called Nymphomaniac, the wheels were once again set in motion for the arousal of controversy in the world of film. There were flashbacks to 2009, where the release of his maniacal Antichrist upset viewers by the thousand, and according to the general consensus, it also lacked any substance to justify its vile excursions. Von Trier himself described it as an exorcism for his personal demons; I called it terrible.
But he followed it up with Melancholia in 2011, which was not only one of his strongest movies, it was also one of his least controversial (which he made up for in the movie’s press conference at Cannes). At last, it appeared that von Trier’s movies would no longer be suffocated by juvenile antagonism, and would instead see the director concentrating on his considerable skills as a filmmaker. But this sigh of relief was succeeded by a sigh of despair as I learned of the nature of Melancholia’s follow-up, and as I sat through all 245 minutes of Nymphomaniac, my worst fears were confirmed bit by bit.
On the surface, the movie is a pleasure. Dividing the story as he usually does into eight chapters, von Trier takes a look at many different facets of sex addiction, ranging from its uses as a means of personal gain to the destruction it wreaks on the lives of others and oneself. The episodic structure and agile pace of the movie causes its titanic running length to more-or-less fly past, and each segment is never anything less than interesting. There is plenty of humour, most of it cruel and coming at the expense of the characters, and given that barely anyone in the movie is remotely likeable, it’s a lot of fun seeing von Trier throw them in and out of ridiculous situations.
This controlled chaos is quite an achievement considering the scope of the movie, and it works well as a vehicle for the plot and von Trier’s political digressions – too bad these aspects are completely lacklustre.
The story begins when Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the movie’s protagonist and the titular nymphomaniac, is discovered lying unconscious in a pool of blood by bookworm Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). He takes her into his house, makes her a cup of tea, and she tells him her sordid life story, presented to the audience in a series of flashbacks, one chapter at a time. The scenes between Joe and Seligman bookend her flashbacks, where the two discuss and philosophise on her actions.
It’s this set-up that renders the movie formulaic; there’s interplay between Joe and Seligman, followed by Joe’s narration of a key moment in her life that usually ends in a “shocking” sex act, at which point the scene will cut back to Seligman who offers a jovial comment on the matter. The pair will then go on to discuss the issues she’s just raised, but not once do they say anything that everyone in the audience doesn’t already know. This exact pattern is repeated eight times, and not once is it ever effective. What’s worse is how it’s delivered; the flashbacks are reasonably well-scripted and there’s an identifiably human touch to the dialogue, yet the pseudo-intellectual ramblings are all very calculated, which is a total mismatch to the way Joe talks in her flashbacks.
Von Trier should know by now that this kind of thing isn’t his forte. His 2003 movie Dogville succeeded in spite of itself until right at the very end, where Grace and her father lunge into a discussion on utilitarianism, which turns a challenging and effective social commentary with free-flowing, poetic dialogue into a ham-fisted chunk of misanthropy in seconds. Indeed, his best movies – Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Melancholia – didn’t rely on voiceover narration or vacuous philosophies, and instead they left the audience to puzzle over the characters’ morally questionable actions, heightening the impact. This isn’t to say that the voiceover is an inherently bad technique, but in the hands of Lars von Trier, it’s a spoon-feeding mechanism that ruins his movies’ potential.
Quite frankly, Nymphomaniac would work better without the whole setup between Joe and Seligman, which subdues any potential impact engendered by the flashbacks. But then again, the flashbacks themselves end up being largely superficial in their delivery anyway, taking the form of vignettes with only Joe’s relationship with Jerome (a regrettable Shia LaBeouf) as a connection between the stories. Aside from this romantic subplot and the topic of sex, the themes are tenuous and faint, as are the efforts to make any of the characters dramatically engaging; as a result, whenever something really terrible happens to Joe, I found it hard to care.
On occasion, entire chapters can suddenly become redundant due to von Trier’s inability to resist punishing an audience through abrupt (and in this case, ineffectual) narrative twists. One of the only legitimately bold aspects of this movie is its choice of actors: Stacy Martin, who plays the young Joe in Part 1, appears in Nymphomaniac as a complete newcomer to cinema which, given the content of the movie, is a brave choice by any standard. Aside from Shia LaBeouf’s inability to decide on an accent (often switching from American to English to Australian in a single conversation), the movie doesn’t lack for decent-to-strong performances, such as Uma Thurman’s portrayal of a distressed mother of three whose husband has left her for Joe, and Jamie Bell’s show-stealing role as K, a guy who runs a shady business for masochistic women, chillingly realised by Bell’s softly-spoken yet unpredictably violent performance.
Other than that and a few other gems – the humour, which I’ve already discussed – Nymphomaniac is a frustratingly hollow experience. On paper, it never had that much chance to succeed anyway; like Antichrist, it’s a typical Lars von Trier movie that paradoxically would have worked out much better in someone else’s hands. As you may already know, the film exists in two parts that amount to a total running time of just over four hours (reduced from a director’s cut that goes on for an extra 90 minutes) – and if you were to see the film I’d recommend catching both parts back-to-back if you can. But neither half of the package manages to really make a strong impression, because despite the skill with which the story is told, Nymphomaniac is too bogged down by Lars von Trier’s desire to be edgy, and his lack of ability to do so without reducing the movie to the level of angry teenage lyricism.
Q+A from the Curzon Chelsea cinema
Both parts of Nymphomaniac were screened back-to-back as a one-off event across the UK on Saturday 22nd February 2014, with an introduction to both parts by host Edith Bowman and a Q+A after the movie broadcast live from the Curzon Chelsea cinema.
Attending the Q+A were Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark (who plays Joe’s childhood friend B in the film), and I have to say, it wasn’t fantastic. Very few of the questions prodded deeply into really interesting subjects, and the actors, Martin and Clark especially, evaded the tougher questions by instead delivering praise for Lars von Trier.
After a particularly daft question (someone had sat through all four hours of the movie and then asked what it was all about), Skarsgard became irate and his answers were tinted with sarcasm, but generally he was more co-operative regarding the movie. Here’s what we learned:
Martin and Clark stated that Lars von Trier gives a lot of creative license to his actors. He’ll work meticulously on a beautifully written script, film the actor reciting the monologue and then get them to repeat it in their own words. This way, he can inject the film with a human touch, and avoid the coldness with which his more precisely crafted earlier movies suffered from.
Similarly, Skarsgard mentions how von Trier approaches his movies without any grand scheme in mind, and that he often allows a film to develop through production and take many different forms.
Martin noted how the director is ‘great to work with,’ and is protective yet totally unfussy, and doesn’t force you into anything. I took this with a pinch of salt; what else are you going to say about a director who’s casting you in a film about sex addiction?
She also stated that she and Charlotte Gainsbourg were told by von Trier not to research for their roles as Joe, as the idea was not to make the model of a nymphomaniac, but rather a woman who happens to be a nymphomaniac. Also, neither of them discussed their roles with each other, which I found disappointing but also expected; Martin and Gainsbourg both have completely different mannerisms in the film, and Joe is not a well-crafted character in the slightest.
When asked if Joe and Seligman were both drawn from von Trier’s own characteristics, Skarsgard revealed that they were, and that von Trier had admitted as much himself.
But he said Nymphomaniac isn’t just a provocation; the movie expounds sexuality as basic human function, instead of some big issue that urgently requires discussion.
A lot of the sex scenes featured only the actresses’ faces – especially where Martin was concerned – the rest of their bodies were porn actors pasted in via green-screen, or in some cases, CGI.
Skarsgard commented on his approach to acting, saying that it isn’t an intellectual job in the slightest, but more akin to manual labour work such as plumbing.
Finally, Martin offered her thoughts on the progressive nature of the movie, which she described as a challenge towards the preconceptions of female desire. Her primary piece of evidence for this was the fact that Joe is consistently ostracised by the other characters for her sexuality until Seligman comments on how her actions would be acceptable if she was a male. ‘Challenging’ is hardly how you’d describe the delivery of common knowledge.
About the Author
Liam Ball is currently taking a degree in film studies at Sheffield Hallam University and spends a lot of time spending a lot of time on stuff. He has a tendency to be disgustingly cheerful, alternated with frequent excursions into scathing verbal pugilism just to blow off steam. You can find more of Liam’s writing on film at The Vomitorium:http://theballog.wordpress.com/