Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lies bloodied and battered on the ground of an alley. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) happens upon her, and helps her up off the ground and back into his nearby apartment to recover, after she denies the need for an ambulance or police.
Asking what got her into this mess, Joe confesses she is a “bad human being” and begins to tell the story of her life and its twists and turns, and its many, many sexual encounters.
Lars Von Trier’s latest, in all its many different forms (locally it’s being screened as a double-feature) is a captivating film. And I mean that in the purest sense of the word captivating, because over the length of the four-hour screening, it doesn’t lag, drag or lose your interest. It’s quite the success, because it’s a long haul story set in a bleak universe where there’s little to no reprieve from the bleakness.
At the centre of this is Joe, in two forms. Joe the protagonist, the alleged bad human being, and Joe the narrator, who utterly despises Joe the protagonist. As the tale is told largely in flashback, we’re shown a series of vignettes, with young Joe played by Stacy Martin in a performance that is as bold and brave as it is accomplished, before moving forward through the years to Joe as played by Gainsbourg. I would mention the bravery and commitment that she shows here, except that she already set that as a standard with Anti-Christ. Gainsbourg is completely unafraid to perform in this movie that shows every angle of her, crafting an at times despicable character but still somehow imbuing her with warmth that attaches you to her.
The important third party is Seligman as the audience to Joe’s tale. Seligman listens with interest and zeal. Each “chapter” of the story begins by Joe spotting something in Seligman’s Spartan apartment (a fishing fly embedded in the wall, a partially obscured painting, a water stain that looks like a gun, etc.) and recounting a tale or anecdote that somehow relates to her point of inspiration. Seligman takes great delight in identifying the connections, and rationalising her behaviour in line with the topic she’s used to frame her stories – an obvious allegory for people trying to analyse character activations and motivations and come to their own larger conclusions, but the way Seligman is framed (for the majority of the movie) there’s no judgement of this assessment.
And what of that assessment? Nymphomaniac is a hard film to hold an opinion of (no surprise, given the director) but I’ve come to the conclusion that with Von Trier’s work it’s probably best not to hold just one opinion as resolute.
There is a lot of sex in this movie (again, no surprise). This is the sort of movie where the sex is pivotal to what’s going on, and its treatment within the film definitely informs the actions on screen. Much of the dilemma of the film comes from Joe, a seemingly nice enough woman, being so convinced she’s a “bad human being” – indeed, it’s the impetus for Seligman staying so tuned in to the story. The sex in Nymphomaniac is anything but erotic. It’s aggressive, passive aggressive, desperate, intimidating, hedonistic, selfish, calculated, opportunistic, and more often than not pointless, but it’s never enjoyable. It’s not a pornographic film masquerading as art – the sex is the symptom of the disease, but what that disease is exactly is left very much up for debate. We come to understand that part of Joe’s assessment of her character comes from the aftermath of many of her encounters.
Young Joe offers her virginity to Jerôme (Shia LeBeouf) as she’s lustily drawn to his good looks and his mechanic hands. She’s not much one to expect a great deal from him, but their encounter is brief and unpleasant (summed up in an equation of 3+5 but I’ll leave you to find out what those numbers mean) and it’s most definitely not a satisfactory experience for her. Jerôme will appear several times in Joe’s life, and always with a bitter ending to their encounters.
From her underwhelming beginnings, we track Joe as she experiences and experiments with sex in other ways; she and a friend board a train one night on a mission to tally up as many notches on their belt as they can with the men on board.
They turn it into a competition, and Joe wins by performing oral sex on a man who tries his very best to avoid the temptation as much as he can. His reasons for resisting mark the first point where Joe’s selfish conquest of sex leads to emotional repercussions for her participant – but it soon becomes clear she doesn’t really care about that.
The emotional dissonance of her desires expands as she goes on, leading to the film’s best scene, where a man she’s having an affair with (who she doesn’t really like) ends up having his wife and children turn up, Mrs H (Uma Thurman in an outstanding bitterly funny but tragic appearance). Mrs H proceeds to conduct a visit in Joe’s home that redefines passive aggressive to its highest height.
Joe’s adulthood contains experiences such as wanting to fuck an African man, not due to some fetishistic appeal of his race, but because she finds the thought of not being able to speak the same language as her companion intensely erotic. He turns up for the encounter with his brother, and the planned threesome ends up being scuppered due to their discomfort, again played for bitter comedy as they argue with each other, clearly angry but with growing erections all the while.
Her inability to experience true satisfaction in any of her sexual encounters drives her to become a client of K (Jamie Bell, outstanding) a soft-spoken sadist who is cold and violent, but confuses the emotional stakes of their encounters with moments of kindness and tenderness that are completely genuine. These scenes are not the standard fare of BDSM as we’re used to it in the movies – no hokey outfits or any sense of exploiting a sexual subculture – K is clearly meant to be a man whose mind operates differently from the rest of the world, and it’s that difference that makes him work for Joe and her needs.
This is by no means a comprehensive retelling of the sex in Nymphomaniac. The sex scenes, while explicit and confrontational, are emotionless and distanced, to reinforce that the sex Joe is having is not the same as the rest of society.
These scenes aren’t used as dramatic beats either – there’s no instance that says, “Oh, she’s this way because that happened” because that would be too easy. They suggest that she might have chosen a particular encounter because that’s what she wanted at the time, or thought she wanted, or wanted to find out about, but there is no Freudian reading that says Sex A leads to Life Event B. The closest this gets played is in the chapter dealing with Joe’s reactions to the death of her father (Christian Slater) and how in the height of her grief she distracts herself with meaningless sex in the hospital. And although it’s perhaps conventional, it’s also in the film’s most emotionally charged chapter, and a painful moment (and sequence) to watch.
It’s the circumstances surrounding those scenes that reveal more than the sex itself. Joe’s first few encounters with K are unbearably tense. The heightened sense of danger due to the potential danger of K as a character and Joe’s unpredictability is palpable and it takes a while for you to realise that this is perhaps the equivalent of sexual thrill and anticipation for Joe.
Her encounters with K also lead to scenes of her abandoning her three-year-old child at home, and while the first few turn out alright, the film is told with such cinematic language that a fair amount of the tension in these scenes comes from the expectation that something nasty is about to befall the child, not least of all when one scene mirrors the famously toddler-death-containing opening scene of Anti-Christ, right down to the same soundtrack (and I admit that I was briefly wondering if it was going to be revealed that Joe from Nymphomaniac and She from Anti-Christ were the same person).
It would be nigh impossible to properly translate in my half-arsed writings just how effective the sex scenes of Nymphomaniac are in informing the character and situations of the film. But if there’s anything to take away from it, it’s that the sex is by no means used as titillation, eroticism or even cheap exploitation. Perhaps the most surprising is that Von Trier even reigns in the philosophising and pretension of Joe and Seligman so that it’s relevant, comprehensible, and understandable.
But the film is not just its sexual content. It’s a bleak outlook on a woman’s life that keeps going from bad to worse on a self-propelled mission of self-destruction. It’s a fitting end for Von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” but in saying that, it’s also one of his most easily enjoyable films. It’s bleak, it’s cynical, it’s the very definition of misanthropic, but in spite of that it’s a surprisingly light film (at least in comparison with his other work). He’s never been a director to shy away from black comedy, but there are moments in Nymphomaniac that I actually burst into laughter (an uncomfortable experience given the small size of the audience I saw the film with in The State Cinema’s converted wine cellar cinema).
Even if it’s not a laugh-a-minute comedy, the actual structure and pacing of the story mean it’s inherently engaging. For a four-hour long double feature, my interest was held the entire time, and while I was aware it was a film taking its time, it never felt like it was lagging, and there are very few moments of downtime in the film while it connects its more involving scenes.
There are some gripes of course – the film opens with what feels like an eternity (in actuality, probably about 40 seconds, but I wasn’t counting) of nothing but a black screen with some vague sound effects. The way the film ends, it brings some relevance to the opening, but in the moment it seemed as though it was a prank to make cinemagoers wonder if the projector bulb had blown.
The film’s end also left me cold (not the final moments, which I’m sure will be divisive, but are at the very least the encapsulation of Von Trier’s cynicism), but the moment where Seligman, having listened to the entirety of Joe’s very long story, sums it up, and the meanings behind it, and the meaning behind Joe herself and who and how she is, in a way that – while not unreasonable – doesn’t quite seem in line with what’s actually happened. It makes you wonder why, if that’s to be the film’s version of what it all means, it hadn’t been brought up in line with the final assessment somehow beforehand. Of course, those aforementioned divisive final moments may read more into that, but it does still beg the question.
Not unexpected for a movie of this ilk, but there’s also some bold rejections of political correctness (and of course, this is discussed between Joe and Seligman). For instance, when Joe begins her chapter of “The Dangerous Men” that brings about the previously mentioned threesome, it’s the first time we see a non-Caucasian character in the film; similarly, the only acknowledged homosexual man in the movie also happens to be a paedophile – and this scene is compounded by a lengthy soliloquy from Joe on what a struggle it must be for a paedophile to live out their entire life without acting on their desires, and how this is an admirable feat.
The soliloquy also contains some semblance of introspection from Joe on how she views her own societal disconnect due to her nymphomania, but overall these moments seem less like provocative philosophy, and more like bait for people to jump up and cry controversy. Then again, this is from a director who expressed his empathy with Hitler, so perhaps Von Trier’s views are just legitimately and significantly different from the norm (but again, no surprise there).
The film is shot simply, but well. It’s not a pretty film by any means, and it makes thorough use of the ugliness of modern buildings and fluorescent lighting to really ramp up the bleakness of its worldview. I also liked how Seligman’s rundown apartment changes from being dilapidated to being warm and a reprieve from the outside with flexibility in different angles or framing. The simplicity of the film’s cinematography does lead to some great standout moments as well – the most breathtaking being a shot of Joe climbing a rocky outcrop to find a tree that’s grown to full height despite being windswept its entire life.
And as for the performances? Gainsbourg and Martin provide bravado, courageous performances as Joe and Young Joe respectively – there’s little in the way of shock factor in what they’re doing, just a fierce commitment to a demanding role and pulling it off with supreme aplomb. Skarsgård is also fantastic, bringing a childlike naïveté and zeal to Seligman that contrasts perfectly with the salacious content of Joe’s tale. Christian Slater redeems himself from a long run of b-movie disasters, and while Joe’s father is not an enormous presence in the film, Slater’s scenes hit with resonance and warmth – you completely understand why he’s such a significant figure in Joe’s life.
The only misfired performance is Shia LaBeouf, so dedicated to proving his artistic capability that he tries too hard. His accent work is questionable – more often than not you hear his American brogue slip through, and his attempts to counter it make the character sound South African. I may be biased, as I instinctively find him to be an irritating actor, but for such a substantial role in the film, I feel it should have been performed by someone much more nuanced and/or talented.
Nymphomaniac is a good film, and it’s worthwhile to see. But having said that, it’s going to be a very different film to each individual who sees it. I know this review has been talking in depth about vague things, and that’s because I’m not a talented enough writer to really discuss how the film plays out without the benefit of it having already been seen by the reader. I would recommend seeing it, just with the foreknowledge that you’re more than likely going to find something confrontational about it.
It is not an endless dirge of depression, nor is it an erotic movie appealing to the artsy crowd as an excuse to see a disguised dirty movie. It is a serious film, a funny film, and a bracing film and very much an individual experience to see. It is an explicit and confrontational film, but I urge you to go out and be confronted, take a moment, and then consider what your opinion is after all of that. It’s a film that’s worth thinking about, even if it’ll take up four hours of your time.