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Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium 2013
Directed by
Lars von Trier
241 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Nymphomaniac: Vols. I & 2

Synopsis:  A self-confessed nymphomaniac, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg)  recounts her sexual history to a lonely man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who ministers to her after finding her battered and bruised in an alley.

Lars von Trier and his regular collaboratrice, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg are back after 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’s Melancholia and up to their old tricks. Nymphomaniac: Vols. I & 2 is a four hour smorgasbord of in-your-face (literally) sex and breast-beating angst laid out in the fine Scandinavian tradition of art-as-suffering. It certainly isn’t for everyone and even for fans of von Trier’s work in general and the two films already mentioned in particular it will probably be a challenge, nevertheless it is a film which will provoke a rich array of responses, from admiration at its trenchant moral iconoclasm to accusations of wanton self-indulgence (not to mention contributing to the downfall of Western civilization but that’s another matter). Both points of view are justified.

Opening with a prologue that gives us an Eraserhead-ish setting of industrialized neglect with water dripping constantly and the sounds of a distant thrumming, von Trier establishes the frame of a narrative which follows the Thousand and One Nights format: Joe recounts her sexual history in chapters to Seligman, albeit trying to persuade her kindly interlocutor that she is a bad person, and plucking at things in his poverty-row digs to help him relate to her story, which we see in flashback, the film periodically cutting back to Joe and Seligman who then comment upon what she has described.

The bipartite structure is a canny device that allows von Trier to move through a series of self-contained  episodes over many decades, from Joe’s earliest sexual feelings and her relationship with her father (Christian Slater), to the present time when Seligman finds her beaten in the alley. The only recurring motif is her relationship with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), her one true love. 

Particularly in the first part of the film von Trier is quite playful, his interweaving of visual and verbal conceits, bringing together such things as fly fishing, Fibonacci numbers and J.S.Bach, recalling the films of Peter Greenaway.  It also helps that in this section of the film Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin who looks very good naked, which she often is. Gainsbourg takes over the performing role in the second and more grueling part of the film as Joe becomes more profoundly possessed by her addiction.  Unlike Steve McQueen’s considerably overrated Shame, which dealt with similar material, Nymphomaniac pulls no punches when it comes to showing the degradation to which Joe’s addiction leads her.  Von Trier does not pathologize her behaviour, indeed in one of the best scenes of the film she makes an impassioned affirmation of its right to life. Gainsbourg's remarkable performance recalls that of the one-time French queen of pain, Isabelle Huppert (there is perhaps a reference to the actress in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher.

The film that we are seeing in theatres is an “abridged and censored” version of von Trier’s original five and a half hour cut. The director has approved this version and I can’t imagine anyone feeling deprived.  Although the canvas is not large, Nymphomaniac is a sprawling, confrontational depiction of aberrant behaviour, at times shocking in its candour, at times showing a unsettling literalism (many would nominate the physiological sex, and Gainsbourg's vulva in this respect but the choice of accompanying pop songs - "Born To Be Wild", "Burning Down The House" etc.- I found more dubious), empathetic yet brutal, and with an ending that seems misjudged.  It is a film few would ever attempt to make, let alone manage this degree of success with. If that piques your interest it is worth a try but be prepared for a long haul.




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