At first glance, much of Lars von Trier’s work seems disrespectful, antagonistic, self-aggrandizing, and unapologetically brutish. His latest piece, Nymphomaniac, the nearly 5-hour-long story of a self-professed nymphomaniac, certainly felt this way prior to its release. Proclaiming the film to be hardcore pornography, calling out the public and media alike for their prudish reception of his concept, and generally baiting the entire cinematic community, it’s been a long road to Nymphomaniac’s two lengthy volumes. Going into the film, you anticipate relentless sex and little else. You almost resign yourself to no plot or point other than to force the public to get over its preconceived notions of sex. What we’re left with, however, is far more compelling.
What lies beneath the surface of Nymphomaniac is an accessible and seemingly honest portrayal of the type of person often perceived as little more than a deviant in society’s eyes. Here we find Trier’s two voices – his learned, rational self debating the nature of humanity and humility with his angry, impassioned, animalistic side – facing off in a kind of battle to save the soul of the so-called afflicted Joe. We’re shown the portrait of a woman who played carelessly with lust as a young adult, blossomed into a woman, and found herself taking ownership of her compulsion. In spite of the overall positive intention of Volume I, and the eye-opening, soul-crushing Volume II, the final message fits into Trier’s canon as antagonistic … with a point.
The story begins with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) being found, beaten and filthy in a dark alley, by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Urging the wounded woman to call the police, he’s left with no choice but to nurse her himself when she refuses. Carrying her back to his lonely apartment, he changes her clothes, and lays her in bed. Once awake and alert, Joe rambles on about being a horrible person, attempting to convince the kindly Seligman that he should have left her there. Eventually, Joe finds herself defending her self-proclaimed villainy, and begins to tell her life’s story in an attempt to convince her saviour.
And that is the film: the life story of a presumably contemptible human being. She starts at the beginning, as a child playing “frog”, to losing her virginity as a teenager, and onto her transition into adulthood. Along the way, Seligman finds himself forming heavy-handed allegories around her life: likening her process of sexual entrapment to fly fishing, her first sexual experience to the Fibonacci sequence, and deeply analyzing the presence of the Tritone, or the Devil’s Chord, in her youth. Joe quickly grows frustrated with Seligman’s inability to simply listen, and it becomes clear he’s incapable of truly understanding Joe’s sexual appetite in any capacity. We watch as the corrupt educates the innocent.
It’s too simplistic to say that Nymphomaniac is Lars von Trier’s way of telling the public to get over themselves and their preconceived notions of sex. While that dialogue is present – palpably so – it’s too reductive a point to encapsulate the entirety of this behemoth of a film. In many ways, Nymphomaniac is a means to an end for Trier to express his own views on sex and the social consciousness of sexuality. Joe and Seligman represent the two halves of his whole – his curious innocence, educated and knowledgeable, and his passionate brute, driven by lust and the desire to consume and aggravate. As the film progresses, it becomes clear you’re watching his own inner monologue, his opinions of himself as well as society, bickering for the foreground. In a strange way, this piece feels akin to the work of Woody Allen – self-reflective and indulgent, highly analytical while still with a hint of denial about its problems. The difference being there’s a weightier alternate dialogue that runs parallel to this self-absorbed pseudo-monologue.
Trier has managed to bring nymphomania to the foreground of social consciousness. Though hardly addressing the medical aspects of the female psychosexual disease (male hypersexuality is referred to as satyriasis,) he instead offers the portrait of a human being, however damaged.
Through powerful performances, dangerous writing, and fearless execution, he’s created a portrait of one of societies rejected children that forces us all to see the human being rather than the socially constructed judgment. Joe isn’t a terrible person. Misguided? Perhaps. Flawed? Very, but aren’t we all? Most certainly she at least begins naïve that her actions have no ramifications. But this is no different than any other young adult full of far too much confidence with absolutely no sense of consequence. We watch her grow, and we watch her learn, as she feels pain and pleasure in equal measure, and experiences the darkness in life that most people brush under the rug. She lives in it, and often finds herself wallowing, relishing the pain.
Through affairs with married men, lying to her conquests for her own amusement, falling in love, having a child, losing her orgasm, and consequently her identity, to finding it again through masochism, her path is laid before us. It is not simple. It’s dirty, painful, and ugly. But there is no shame in that.
Trier’s recurring leading lady, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is absolutely fearless. Nothing about her performance suggests a caricatureish portrayal of social judgments. Instead, she offers a compelling portrait of the person behind the preconceived notions. Her commitment to the honest portrayal of Joe is stunning, and she creates a multifaceted human being out of what most would dismiss as damaged goods.
Stacy Martin, in her breakout role as the Young Joe, is astonishing. To handle such shocking content with this much grace and aplomb is something you’d expect of a seasoned pro like Gainsbourg. But Martin, her first time in a feature film, is remarkable.
While his performance is admirable at best, Shia LaBeouf leaves a stale taste in my mouth as Joe’s longtime lover, Jerôme. He’s hardly a match for his powerhouse colleagues. Martin and Gainsbourg outshine him at every turn, leaving his performance feeling amateurish. His failed attempt at an English accent does him no favours, as he flops around somewhere between Liverpudlian, Irish, and South African. He lacks tact in his performance, taking no ownership over the role, and misses the mark on flushing life into the character.
Stellan Skarsgård is perhaps one of the most compelling performances in the film, and easily one of the most interesting characters as Seligman. The voice of reason, an educated man attempting to use logic to ease Joe’s self-flagellation, he’s almost childlike in his desire to believe in the good in people. His opinion sways throughout the film, but his conviction never seems to waver. And yet he serves possibly the most soul-crushing blow of the entire film. Seligman is our social consciousness. He is our desire to be politically correct, gracious and all-accepting, while at the same time serving as the portrait of our uniform prejudice.
Surprisingly funny, Volume I of Nymphomaniac allows the audience to understand the genesis of this kind of human being. Volume II, on the other hand, forces us to acknowledge our own prejudices about sex and sexual culture, leaving us with a crude taste in our mouths. Nymphomaniac is best seen as a whole, both volumes back to back, for its strongest impact. Wherever possible, take the day and screen both segments together. As with most of Trier’s work, the reception of this film will be divisive. And while it may not be his best work, it’s certainly a heady accomplishment.