Nymphomaniac, dir/wr. Lars von Trier, st. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Uma Thurman, Shia LeBeouf, Jamie Bell, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Willem Dafoe
"This isn't for you." comedian Stewart Lee frequently informs his audience, an audience he takes delight in segregating - "there was a big take-up for that joke over this side of the room, the other side... not so much..." - even sometimes offering that they've come to see him by mistake. It's a brilliant device that you either 'get' (the alienation serves two purposes - as a genuine commentary on those audience members who are there to disengage and be served easy laughs, and as an effective, self-reflective, wheat/chaff-isolating mechanism that reminds those who care of the sincerity of the show's politic-satirical content), or that makes you hopping mad with frustrated rage at its apparent narcissism. So if von Trier's persona non grata T-shirt he wore at the Nymphomaniac premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year is anything to go by (the label bestowed upon him after a quip about Hitler backfired at the Melancholia press conference), there's clearly an impish roguery at work, a stubborn compulsion to prod, goad, provoke. Von Trier doing standup in absentia. Twas ever thus. And like the best standup, there's profundity amongst the profanity.
Nymphomaniac arrives creaking at the seams - and in two parts - at an epic four hours (there's an extra ninety minutes of Director's Cut somewhere out there too), but then, there's a lot to get through. Late on a Winter's evening in a nameless suburb (the currency says England but the plug sockets say somewhere on the Continent), the armchair academic Seligman (Skarsgård) finds Joe (Gainsbourg) recumbent in what looks like a Gregory Crewdson setup, beaten-up in an alleyway. He takes her up to his flat and as she convalesces, she recounts her tale of sexual discovery. "I discovered my cunt at age two," she begins. As opening gambits go, it's a doozy. Her journey spans five chapters in Part 1, in which Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin (stoically back-channeling Gainsbourg's vocal and physical affectations), and three chapters in the thematically murkier Part 2, where Gainsbourg takes over. Both parts are intercut with Joe and Seligman back in the flat, him punctuating her experiences with excited correlations to religious iconography, fly-fishing artistry, Bach fugues, or complex mathematical codings. This, like Stewart Lee, whose reflections are actually supported by vast nerdistry, is von Trier in full-on geek mode. But it's cleverly employed so we're not always sure if he's being sincere or deprecating his own dorkiness. After Joe tells of her virginity being taken at fifteen by local bike mechanic Jerôme (LaBeouf) with three thrusts vaginally and five anally (a code that repeats itself in the way chapters are assigned to the two parts), Seligman's response is great enthusiasm at recognition of part of the Fibonacci sequence. Then, just as his connections grow ever more tentative and we suspect are own legs being pulled, Joe gives him a stern look. "I don't think you're taking this seriously," she tells him.
Seen as the third part of von Trier's so-called Depression Trilogy, Nymphomaniac isn't anything like as graphic as Antichrist or as beautifully nihilistic as Melancholia, and as has been widely reported, the sex within the movie has all the titillation of an Attenborough-narrated nature documentary. It is however, another bleak look at uninvited excess, the extremes people put themselves through in order to succumb to a singular psychological itch. Yet this film seems remarkably focused despite the expansive subject matter. Technically, I suspect this has something to do with von Trier dispensing (for the most part) with handheld cameras and utilising instead much calmer static, tracking, and Steadicam shots which balance the film and lend a surprisingly engaging sense of conventionality. Gainsbourg gives another one of her implacable performances, but whether Martin is exhibiting a novice's callowness or cleverly underplayed reservation is unclear. The net result however, generally coheres with Gainsbourg's portrayal of Joe making for a formidably persuasive duet of characterisation that gives Nymphomaniac its urgent momentum. As ever with von Trier films though, it's the secondary characters that help saturate the miserable greys of his canvas, and there are many here; Christian Slater plays Joe's Father, whose love of dendrology he shares with a much younger, pre-Martin Joe, Uma Thurman as the ultra-anguished Mrs. H, a woman scorned who along with her three kids crashes Joe's apartment mid-'appointment' with her philandering husband ("Would it be alright if I showed the children the whoring bed?" she asks), and Jamie Bell as K, a sadomasochist for hire who terrifying oscillates between smacking Joe in the face with coin-laden gloves, and exhibiting public-school politeness that highly unnerves in its incongruity.
As a filmmaker, getting your point across to your audience can underwhelm with a reticence to commit, or backfire with such vigorous over-indulgence, and while it's clear which side von Trier champions, it's highly subjective how successful he is. And true, it's hard to take Joe's frequent request to "fill all my holes" as the multi-layered, existentialist, soul-satiating invitation it's intended to be. But Nymphomaniac may be many things, but lascivious is not one of them. Why? Because, to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, "I'll know it when I see it." There's just too much going on that's of interest. Lars von Trier's like a bookish Tarantino, his films an assortment of scholastic and literary references to Quentin's pop-culture super-cool. Nymphomaniac's strength lies not in its ability to shock and cause controversy (or offence), but in its persuasion to force its audience to reflect on how we censor ourselves. How we correlate things like desire, love, sexuality, religion, art, violence, or even if we prohibit ourselves from doing so at all. Certainly, this is a film that stimulates and arouses, but maybe not in the way you might expect.