Nymphomaniac volumes I & II (2014)
When Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.
The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.
In many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.
The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.
The film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.
One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.
The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.
That’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.
It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.
I’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.
Volume 1: B-
Volume 2: C+
The Ending: F
Nate’s Grade Overall: B
Posted on April 22, 2014, in 2014 Movies and tagged addiction, charlotte gainsbourg, christian slater, doomed romance, drama, jamie bell, lars von trier, mia goth, period, sex, shia labeouf, stacy martin, stellen skarsgard, uma thurman, willem dafoe. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.