Lars Von Trier has always been interested in sex. Going back as far as Breaking the Waves, he has always been willing to delve into what he sees as the ineffable mysteries of human sexuality, and female sexuality in particular, with a stress on the way sexuality and crippling depression can overlap. If you haven’t seen Antichrist – and its gut-wrenchingly hopeless depiction of shocking sexual violence and its chaotic dark trek into an exploration of misogyny in general – well, you must steel yourself for the orgy genital mutilation therein.
With Nymphomaniac – a 4 ½-hour epic that is being released in two parts – Lars Von Trier seems to have rounded another aesthetic corner. The usually turgid and torturous enfant terrible of the art house scene has finally – and rather surprisingly – added notes of levity to his ouevre, making Nymphomaniac perhaps his most enjoyable – dare I say funniest – film to date, at least in terms of its first half. The second is due in theaters in two weeks.
This is not to say that we’re dealing with a lighthearted romp. This is a film that deals with nymphomania, and the crushed hearts that perhaps implies – there is a lot of free-floating pain in this film. But Von Trier has managed to make a vivacious, muscular, visually explosive, intellectually playful epic that speaks to his maturity as a filmmaker, while still clinging to his inherent conceited naughtiness. This is a man who is no longer poking his finger into wounds to see the pain on your face; Nymphomaniac is not going to be the soul-smearing trip through Hell that some of his previous films have been. Here is a filmmaker, deeply in lust with the cinematic form, using every tool he knows to draw out the drama of his interests. He shifts aspect ratios and camera stock, and constructs deliberately spare sets in which to stage his story. Odd that the man who co-founded Dogme ’95 – in an attempt to retain cinematic purity – should thereafter become increasingly mannered and stylized.
Sure, there is still Von Trier’s habit of sensationalism, and Nymphomaniac does indeed feature numerous unsimulated sex acts, some of which are perpetrated (seemingly) by big name actors. A lot of what he’s showing you is indeed intended to shock… perhaps. Von Trier’s new habits seem to be more personal, however, so there is a definite purpose to his shock tactics. In Antichrist and Melancholia, he explored his own deep depression. Now he is expanding that into something more universal, and perhaps a little bit less alienating. It’s been said that these three films are all of a piece.
Von Trier’s vice seems to be put in the mouth of Stellan Skarsgård, as an older bachelor named Seligman living in a small apartment. One evening he finds the bruised and bloodied unconscious body of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alleyway. He takes her in and hears her story while he nurses her back to health. Joe tells Seligman of her mis-adventurous youth (Stacy Martin plays the young Joe), masturbating in public, having competitive sex on a train, her habit of lining up at least ten sexual partners in a single night (including married men), and the eventual romantic connection she longs for with the man who took her virginity (Shia LaBeouf). Seligman listens on without an ounce of prurience, and without a scrap of moral superiority. Indeed, it’s Seligman who justifies her actions, often comparing her sexual hunting with either classical music, or – of all things – fly fishing. Joe feels she is a horrible human being for the heartbreak and coldness she has brought to the world. There is nothing erotic about this film.
A relief: This is not a film about the protracted psychological origins of sex addiction. There is no easy “out” for any of the main characters. What we have to contend with is the addiction itself. Not its “solution.” In that regard, Nymphomaniac is far superior to the relatively touchy Shame.
Constructed in chapters, Nymphomaniac features some excellent singular episodes that would play as great short films unto themselves. The best involves the young Joe automatically telling one of her married boyfriends that she loves him too much, when love is clearly the last thing on her mind. When he unexpectedly leaves his wife on the same night, and the suffering wife (Uma Thurman) follows him inside, the shame, guilt, and near-comedic levels of pathos are irresistible. Thurman’s performance in that lone scene is amazing, and the entire scenario almost plays like a sitcom, just one that involves rage, pain, and betrayal.
The ambition of such a project is amazing to behold, and I feel that Von Trier – by allowing himself to be unfettered – has finally found his aesthetic niche.
As this is only the first part, more is yet to be revealed. I will report back, of course, when the ultimate themes of the project reveal themselves. As of now, I am darkly giddy and oddly pleased to have seen such ambition come from such a powerful filmmaker.