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
Edward Camby (Christian Slater) is a paranormal investigator trying to rediscover what happened in his past. He was apart of 20 orphans taken by Fischer (Frank C. Turner), your basic mad scientist type. Camby was the only child to escape Fischer’s poking and prodding. The other orphans have become sleeper agents/zombies to assist him in opening a dimensional gate to another world, a world with bloodthirsty creatures that live in darkness. This world and its creatures were first discovered by an ancient Native American tribe who mysteriously vanished. But before doing so, they thoughtfully broke the dimensional key and hid the pieces all over North America. Aline Cedrac (Tara Reid) is a scientist/archeologist that specializes in this Native American tribe and its artifacts. She teams up with her old flame, Camby, to help stop the mad doctor. Monitoring the whole situation is Commander Burke (Stephen Dorff), the man in charge of the United States government’s bureau of the paranormal. He leads his no-nonsense super troopers to the location of the dimensional gateway, which just happens to be underneath Camby’s childhood orphanage.
Alone in the Dark is a good film for people that felt House of the Dead was too intellectual. It should be obvious after reading the plot synopsis, but Alone in the Dark is a movie of unparalleled stupidity. What was the point of making orphans sleeper agents/zombies? They’re very easily disposed of and not very effective. I don’t know whether or not this is because they didn’t have a mom and dad growing up. What does this mad doctor hope to achieve by opening the door to creepy crawly monsters? I guess he thinks the monsters will be grateful and give him some kind of bureaucratic job, instead of, you know, gutting him and drinking his blood. I’ll never understand why villains align themselves with creatures whose only purpose is killing. How does Camby end up having a childhood flashback from a perspective that isn’t his own? The plot of Alone in the Dark is a gigantic mess. What other film in recent memory fits together ancient Native American tribes, monsters from an alternate dimension, government agencies, orphanages, zombies, and Tara Reid? You know you’re in bad hands when they open the film with a ten paragraph scrawl to explain what the film, by itself, cannot. And then they add narration because they don’t trust their audience to read.
The film is called Alone in the Dark and tells us that killer creatures lurk where we cannot see them. This is a fine platform to engineer some good scares; really stir the audience into fearing what they cannot see. As always, nothing will be scarier than a person’s mind at work. Boll doesn’t agree. He doesn’t even toy with the idea of hiding his creatures and building tension gradually. Boll prefers to show you his monsters immediately and often, therefore eliminating any attempts at suspense. Now the characters aren’t running away from what they can’t see; they’re running away from lame CGI rat/alligator creatures. The monsters look laughable and should have staid in the shadows for as long as possible. It’s hard to spook an audience once they see what they’re supposed to be afraid of. Boll’s impatience for suspense and his love of cheesy special effects cripple Alone in the Dark.
Alone in the Dark has no pulse when it comes to action. Boll stages his action sequences like different stations on a game show. Characters (contestants) run from station to station, picking up weapons and shooting at whatever, and then advancing to another stage with a different weapon. Much of the action just comes out of nowhere and ends in its own confused way. Boll likes to season his poorly choreographed action sequences by cranking up loud rock music and mixing in excessive, gimmicky special effects. For no reason, Camby and Aline and the soldiers will be shooting and Boll just all of sudden decides this scene should be in a strobe light. Or he’ll shove in a cheap slow-mo follow-the-bullet effect. Boll likes testing out different effects that serve little purpose other than to call attention to itself. Boll has confused this with style.
Speaking of action coming out of nowhere, Boll manages to squeeze in an out-of-the-blue sex scene. Aline visits Camby in the morning, sees him sleeping, and decides on the spot to crawl into bed and have sex with him. Would she really keep her bra on the whole time? Reid and Slater have no chemistry whatsoever. It’s like watching water buffalos go at it. Then the sex is never referred to again. This is just another pristine example of how carelessly Uwe Boll handles plot and characters. Rarely does Boll even bother with a transition scene to explain how a character got from Point A to Point B.
Boll’s direction is lazy and derivative. There are scenes that openly ape superior movies, like Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starship Troopers, and even Boll’s own House of the Dead for crissakes. The plot is a cut-and-paste job of the series finale of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both deal with an army of creatures living under an everyday school building and involve a special key to unlock the gateway. And like in Buffy, some noble individual sacrifices himself to destroy the gateway’s underground entrance. No, scratch that. The plot itself is virtually a copy of Super Mario Brothers, the first video game based movie. Both films involve some magical key needed to unlock two alternate dimensions of creatures. No, scratch that. This is one big rip-off of Darkness Falls, since both involve crazy creatures that can only attack from the dark. Whatever it is, Alone in the Dark is Boll’s opportunity to showcase his unoriginality. That is, if you can pry him away from inserting more pointless slow-mo bullet effects.
The acting is wildly all over the map. I wonder if Boll will ever be able to direct actors. The line delivery is terrible all around. Slater is subdued and permanently cranky. Maybe somewhere inside that Jack Nicholson grin he’s realized he’s slumming it. Reid acts like an irritable child playing dress-up. Dorff seems to be the only actor having any fun, though I don’t know how intimidating this diminutive actor comes across as a military man. The actors of Alone in the Dark confuse loud with emotional.
Let’s take some time out to spotlight Reid and her character. The way Alone in the Dark convinces us that Reid is a scientist is by giving her some black rimmed glasses and putting her hair in a pony tail. Reid with hair down and no glasses? Party girl. Reid with hair up and glasses? Respected member of the scientific community. It’s just that easy, folks. For a scientist, Reid has an awful lot of halter-tops. Maybe she’s that lone scientist that likes to go out for margaritas after getting her hands dirty with the scientific method. Apparently being a scientist didn’t help Reid with her geography; she pronounces Newfoundland “New-FOUND-land” (the correct pronunciation is “New-fin-lan”).
The dialogue reeks of poorly concealed exposition. A chatty security guard serves as the writer’s sloppy conduit to establish back story: “You don’t know about the Indians? Let me explain,” “You don’t know who Aline Cedrac is? Let me explain,” “How’s your boooooyfriend, Aline Cedrac?” Alone in the Dark relies on gobs of thick exposition to cover up its insurmountable plot holes. The movie thinks it’s like a cool detective noir. It’s not. You never heard Sam Spade say, “Fear is what protects you from the things you don’t believe in.” Huh? Does that make any sense?
Alone in the Dark is symptomatic of all of Boll’s directorial flaws. He has no feel for tone, he has no control over actors, he makes bad stylistic decisions that detract from the film, and he has no time for subtlety. Boll spoils all of his surprise by showing the monsters up and front instead of letting the human mind fill in the blanks for terror. This is a brain-dead action film that doesn’t even trust its audience to read. Alone in the Dark is a film so incompetent, so ridiculous, so convoluted, and so moronic that it must bend the laws of space and time simply to exist. This makes House of the Dead look well thought out. If this is indicative of what Boll has in store for his video game adaptations, then you can expect many duds yet to come on Boll’s path to eventual audience oblivion. If anyone dared venture to a theater to see this movie, they’d find themselves alone in the dark all right. And shamed. Deeply, deeply shamed.
Nate’s Grade: F