Lars Von Trier made one of the best films of the year, and perhaps one of the best films of his career… and then betrayed us all with a cheap, gimmicky ending.
In the first half of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (as I have previously reviewed on Nerdist), Our sex-addicted antiheroine Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as a young woman) related a long tale to a gentle rescuer named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) about how her nymphomania had led her into a life of obsessive iniquity and moral uncertainty. The first half ended with Joe announcing that she spontaneously lost all sexual feelings in her genitals, which is essentially the worst crisis a nymphomaniac can have. I was very taken by the robust artiness of the first half, and it seemed that Von Trier was finally, forcibly growing out of his affected misery, self-indulgent depression, and wannabe-naughty misanthropy.
The second half, released in theaters separately, continues the artistic greatness of the first half, exploring Joe’s soul into unexpectedly sympathetic places. This is the first film Von Trier has directed that actually seems hopeful about the human experience. As Joe commits more and more insensitive acts to feed her insatiable sexual appetite (she leaves her husband and child in favor of a sadist-for-hire played by the ever-so-handsome Jamie Bell, to cite one notable example), we begin to see her quandary. Her appetites are a show of sexual power and freedom – it’s part of who she is – but her compulsive need for sexual contact overwhelms her ability for lasting emotional contact. This is all explored free of prurience, preachiness, or judgment, just as in Volume I. This is not a film to titillate. It’s not a film to tut-tut. This is a film to explore.
Since Von Trier still has the streak of the adolescent male in him, the exploration is handled more through a gentle sort of intellectualization rather than a truly empathetic eye; Sentimental empathy is most certainly not Von Trier’s MO. As such, the film bends over backward to wrap itself around all kinds of arch artistic experiments that luckily work more often than they don’t. Von Trier is just allowing himself to breathe, letting the characters tell their tale in their own time. The burning question Joe keeps asking is whether or not she’s a good person, with the Dionysian Joe insisting that her moral compass is broken, and the Apollonian Seligman defending her. Seligman, you see, reveals he is asexual, making him the perfect person to hear the tale of the nymphomaniac.
Until the last 90 seconds of film, Von Trier has made what can be considered one of the best films of the year. It’s sensitive, dark, light, funny, lithe, muscular, brainy and brawny all at once. Sure, it tries to elicit shocks with its closeups of genitals and unflinchingly violent sexuality, and one can easily accuse Nymphomaniac of being cheap with some of its protracted plot twists (Jerôme, played by Shia LaBeouf, re-enters Joe’s story in a few admittedly unbelievable ways), but I don’t see the artificial shock moments to be included for shock’s sake. They are there to lend texture to this story. Rawness. Discomfort. The shock serves a tonal function.
But then – and here I breathe a rather heavy sigh – Von Trier just couldn’t let well enough alone. The final 90 seconds of film betray everything that came before it. And not in a way that makes logical sense within the film’s context. The characters just suddenly behave completely out of character, and the gentle, well-earned ending is stepped on. After four hours of rough, dark psychological analysis and eventual hints at empathy and even redemption, Von Trier – possibly because he just can’t help himself – raises a big middle finger to the audience. I don’t want to reveal what happens, but the final scene is enough to enrage.
And it’s not because Von Trier is tilting back into his usual misanthropy and depression; I would be fine if the ending was unexpectedly tragic and even misanthropic. This is not a tragic ending. This is a filmmaker – for unfathomable reasons – intentionally betraying his own movie with what amounts to be a cute joke. I could only call it an emotional cheap shot if it made any sense whatsoever. To elucidate, it would be as if Darth Vader appeared in the final five seconds of Star Wars, murdered all the characters very quickly, and then looked at the camera as a trombone played a “wah-wah-wah” on the soundtrack.
This is a great movie – one that I still whole-heartedly recommend – that commits seppuku. I’m still upset about it. Maybe someday I’ll put that little twist into context, but right now I want to make the following recommendation: See this film, and then walk out right when Joe says she’s going to go to sleep. You’ll like it better.
Rating: 4 Burritos
Final Rating (The whole of Nymphomaniac, minus 90 seconds): 5 Burritos