The third entry in everyone’s favourite rule-breaking Danish provocateur Lars von Trier’s ‘Depression Trilogy’ (von Trier just loves to divide his output into trilogies), “Nymphomaniac” is a four hour-long, two film exploration of (and dialogue between) those most unlikely of bedfellows, female sexuality and bibliophilia -- and arrives freighted with all that prior sense of grand expectation that comes as part of the territory when dealing with the eternally glum director’s reputation for practicing the arts of iconoclasm, shock tactics and general bad behaviour, both on screen in his films, and off it in his interviews. This also feels like a film which, at great length and in exhaustive detail, sets out to provide the narrative culmination and summing up of cinematic themes and obsessions which have appeared to preoccupy von Trier for the last twenty-years of his career at least: principally his preference for downtrodden, mistreated female protagonists struggling under the damning weight of society’s expectations (“Breaking the Waves”, “Dancer in the Dark”, “Dogville”); his wry interrogation of the labyrinthine stratagems that, according to the von Trier world-view at least, men and women employ in their intimate relationships to shield themselves from their endless capacity for making each-other unhappy, even though they still end up doing that anyway (“Antichrist”, “Melancholia”); and, perhaps overarchingly, his predilection for constructing -- always with enormous wit -- elaborate and potentially inflammatory scenarios infused with his own special brand of downbeat, sometimes cynical, but intensely mischievous-verging-on-childish, sense of humour.
All are qualities that are included in this film in spades (to use a term that anticipates the two main characters’ discussion of modern sensitivities concerning the use of racially descriptive idioms). The big ‘gimmick’ in “Nymphomaniac” when it was announced originally, was supposed to be that, thanks to the wonders of digital technology, it allowed for the depiction of famous Hollywood stars in pornographic situations involving real intercourse -- although, in fact, that turns out to be a slightly garbled account of what it does contain: this is a film where sex happens on screen courtesy of the use of genital prosthetics and porno body doubles who are miraculously and utterly seamlessly digitally grafted over the two lead actresses (Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin) who play the main character at different points in her life story; but non-simulated sex is not in itself anything new these days -- merely a trend which has been gathering pace for time, ever since those oh, so innocent days back in 1998, when von Trier’s “The Idiots” caused pandemonium at the BBFC by featuring real penetrative sexual activity and a briefly glimpsed erection. And anyway, none of the sex involves the bigger Hollywood names in the cast and when it does occur it barely makes an impression, so matter of factly is the fleshy reality of intimacy presented here.
No, the real sense of provocation that surrounds “Nymphomaniac” relates more to the sheer chutzpah involved in the very idea of presenting a four hour long (five-and-a-half hours in the original Danish cut) intimate exploration of such a subject at all; and the typically idiosyncratic, not to say bonkers way Von Trier chooses to go about it is summed up by one brief moment near the start of volume 2 when the film’s self-confessed sexoholic female protagonist describes to her lonely, middle-aged male interlocutor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an episode from her childhood in which she recalls experiencing an intense orgasm, while lying in a field, that actually causes her to levitate several feet off the ground while being subjected to a quasi-religious vision of two saintly-looking women, one of whom Joe describes as looking rather like the Virgin Mary! Her intensely learned, autodidactic listener then explains to her that the postures she has described her saintly visitations adopting in fact resemble those displayed by a famous classical roman sculpture of Messalina, the Emperor Claudius’ nymphomaniac third wife -- and a painting of the Great Whore of Babylon herself, riding Nimrod in the form of a bull … and that her entire anecdote appears in fact to be structured along similar lines as, and could be taken as a blasphemous retelling of, the Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount – ‘one of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s holiest passages, in which the humanity of Christ is illuminated by the divine light of eternity’.
Seligman does wonder at this point if Joe might in fact be making fun of him, one of several occasions on which he questions the strict veracity of what is being presented to him as a straight retelling of her life story but which is, nevertheless, filled throughout with unbelievable coincidences and, occasionally, almost supernatural sounding incidents. It’s also one of the points at which the viewer’s feelings are similarly inclined to consider if this whole film isn’t just one fiendishly intricate, deadpan piss-take on behalf of its famously contrary writer-director. For instance, the preceding mention of the Eastern Church then leads into a digression on the nature of the historical split between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity and their relationship to aspects of the religion relating to suffering and joy, which is then made by Joe the basis of the next chapter heading for the following segment of her life story – with the addition in brackets of the phrase ‘The Silent Duck’ to add some levity. If you should feel the need to Google that phrase in order to obtain some understanding of the sheer bizarreness of all this, then please do be careful which web pages you choose to click on!
This interaction and intermingling of episodes from Joe’s varied life of devotion to the cultivation of her sexuality through widening the scope of her exploits with Seligman’s recondite book learning, which provides the material for detailed digressions on a ceaseless variety of apparently random topics such as fly fishing, the significance of the Fibonacci number set, or James Bond’s favourite pistol, characterises the entire film and informs its structure throughout. It begins like a dream -- with a dark screen and several minutes of ambient noise (distant trains rattling by, rainwater dripping from corrugated roofs), then opens on to an image of a dank, dark deserted alleyway during a light flurry of snow. There’s possibly no better mixture of visual elements possible for summing of Lars von Trier’s particular knack for creating weirdly offbeat fairy tale-like narratives that are nevertheless infused with the bitter realism of lived experience.
As some brutal heavy metal riffage, courtesy of Rammstein’s track Führe Mich, kicks in (the film’s music score is as varied as its mise-en-scene, with Bach and Mozart competing with Steppenwolf and even Charlotte Gainsbourg’s own woozy dreampop cover of Hendrix’s Hey Joe, which plays out over the end credits), In the middle of the alley we find a bruised, bloodied and badly beaten woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A shabbily dressed pedestrian notices her and offers to call an ambulance, but the woman refuses. Eventually she agrees to be led back to his flat and have her wounds treated there. She says her name is Joe and insistently claims that she is a very bad human being. Her humble rescuer, a reclusive, shy, middle-aged bachelor called Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), asks her why she feels this to be the case, prompting Joe to relate her entire life story to him over the course of the remainder of the night, giving it the form of a series of extended anecdotes split into chapters, in which a fatal addiction to sex will be shown to have led her inexorably to this very situation, which she claims is what she has deserved all along.
Seligman decides to make it his mission of sorts to persuade her that she really isn’t the evil creature she seems to think she is; but having had no life experiences of his own beyond his obsession with books to draw on to aid him, he can only use his knowledge of a host of esoteric subjects in order to try to demonstrate to Joe that that this inward sense of shame she feels is groundless.
This is Stellan Skarsgård’s fifth Lars von Trier film and Gainsbourg’s third in a row with him. Each could fairly claim to have been cast to represent various facets of the director’s on-screen alter ego through the characters they’ve collaborated with him in creating over the years, much like James Stewart became Hitchcock’s surrogate in their three films together or Kyle MacLachlan David Lynch’s in “Blue Velvet” and “Twin Peaks”; but here the director’s intention seems to be to attempt to bring his contradictory sides together – the fearlessly rebellious sexual iconoclast who was brought up by left wing nudists and the thoughtful, conventional fact-obsessed nerd – in a dialogue which takes place between two very different characters who represent an attempt to reconcile the life that is dedicated to the pursuit of pure sensation and experience and that which is wholly given over to a monkish devotion to the accumulation of knowledge.
The tone established in part one, after the rather dour setting for this meeting of outlooks is introduced – Seligman’s unprepossessingly dingy flat, with its peeling wallpaper and faded squalor – becomes unexpectedly playful and is often mordantly funny as Joe looks back upon formative episodes of her early life (in which she is played by Stacy Martin), starting with the circumstances surrounding her arrangement of the loss of her virginity as a schoolgirl, and moving on to her adolescent phase of strident rebellion against the bourgeois norms of love and romance, which she fastens upon after she and her best friend ‘B’ (Sophie Kennedy Clark) progress from holding competitions with each-other over who can have sex in the toilets with the most men during train trips to forming their own female only sex cult called ‘The Little Flock”, which is devoted to the active pursuit by its members of sex without love with as many partners as possible and acts of vandalism against commercial outlets that promote conventional values such shop window displays of wedding dresses or promotions for Valentine’s Day.
This whole ‘shock tactic, anti-bourgeoisie rebellion’ business harks all the way back to the mischievousness of “The Idiots”, but is dealt with in direct contrast to the restrictive dictates followed by that film’s adherence to the Dogme 95 Manifesto. For in “Nymphomaniac” von Trier, especially throughout volume 1, adopts what appears to be a self-consciously art-centred, intensely stylised and illustrative approach to the film’s organisation, often recalling the work of Peter Greenaway in the way it incorporates dense allusions to art history and musicology, and in its fascination with number games and puzzles of all types -- all of which are concerns reflected in a mise-en-scène that is constantly being manipulated through the overlaying of documentary images and the use of split screen imagery and on-screen text graphics. Joe appears to respond to Seligman’s tendency to look for sometimes tenuous connections between her stories and his intellectual concerns (‘that must be your weakest digression yet,’ she sighs ruefully, after one particularly forced analogy) by actively seeking to incorporate them into her tales. She takes as inspiration a painting behind a sideboard and a religious icon on the wall of his flat; and even Seligman’s use of a cake fork with a pastry dish, and a tea stain left on his bedroom wall are used to provide the starting points for the content of several of her anecdotes – which of course feeds a doubt over the extent of the truth behind at least some of what she says.
Von Trier himself takes a very freewheeling approach to his depiction of stories which veer between comic-Rabelaisian accounts of Joe’s misadventures, sombre poetic meditations and harrowing memoirs on subjects as diverse as the difficulties of juggling multiple sexual relationships simultaneously; the sadness of falling in love against one’s will and the mixture of lust and jealousy and sense of cosmic loneliness this can lead to; and a particularly bleak episode in which Joe recalls witnessing the lingering, drawn-out nature of her beloved father's death when he is hospitalised while suffering from a terminal illness – all of which, and more, encompasses a veritable compendium of film styles including sections in black and white, sequences that mimic home movies and others that feel almost improvised or vérité in style.
But the overriding impression is one of stage-managed artifice: the diverse nature of the stories Joe relates allows von Trier to include sections that are as different in approach as, for instance, the episode that engages in apparent mimicry of the humour, style and tone of Ricky Gervais’s “The Office”, which occurs when Joe is recalling her first experience of work as a secretary in a printing firm where Shia LaBeouf plays her David Brent-like boss (and, eventually, the father of her son), Jerôme Morris; while volume 2 features an extensive section in which the older Joe, now played by Gainsbourg, becomes a ruthless debt collector for an mysterious extortionist (played by her “Antichrist” co-star Willem Dafoe) and starts a lesbian affair with her much younger and ambitious would-be successor (Mia Goth) -- all of which comes across like an extract from a Claude Chabrol thriller mixed with erotic episodes from a Jean Rollin potboiler. Farcical humour also marks out a vignette in which Uma Thurman plays the wife of one of Joe’s sex partners, who turns up at Joe’s flat with her children in tow and demands to let them see ‘the whoring bed’ so that they can pay their respects to ‘daddy’s favourite place’!
There is a marked air of unreality and artifice about the whole film caused by what seems like a deliberate policy not to provide any part of it with a fixed sense that it is taking place in real locations. For instance, what country are we meant to be in? Some of it looks like London (walk on rolls for British actors such as Saskia Reeves and Kate Ashfield appear to back up that impression) but the Chabrol-like section looks like it takes place in France thanks to its remote countryside chateaux-like locations. The cast is international, of course, displaying a wide variety of accents with no regard for consistency of character let alone place: both Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg are Anglo-French (although Martin sounds a great deal posher than Gainsbourg), yet Christian Slater plays her father with an undisguised American accent. Joe’s mother might have married an American, of course, but every single relationship in the movie appears to involve a similar mixture of nationalities, while the American actor Shia LaBeouf, to the ridicule of many commentators, seems to have attempted the invention of a nationality all of his own by improvising an accent that sounds for all the world like the Swedish Chef from The Muppets attempting a cockney barrow boy impression.
Seligman’s poky little flat, meanwhile, looks like exactly what it is: a soundstage set -- a fourth-wall-shattering effect which is only emphasised by the use of a 2.35:1 aspect ratio which flattens everything out on the screen. Joe is virtually the only character that is fleshed out in any substantial way. We learn very little of Seligman beyond what we gather almost immediately from his appearance and the old-fashioned contents of the one room of his flat we get to see; and, during what is a much more serious and significantly darker and more disturbing second volume, an obtusely emotionally blank and unengaged Jamie Bell remains completely unreadable as the utterly creepy sadomasochist whom Joe desperately turns to for stimulation after losing her ability to orgasm, but then becomes so obsessed with that she is willing to give up her infant child in order to continue seeing him and experience the abuse he deals out. By then we have long left behind the humour and mischievousness that defines most of the first volume and are heavily mired in “Breaking the Waves” levels of despair and misery, as Joe’s years of self-sought abuse begin to take their toll on her body. (After this and “Antichrist”, Charlotte Gainsbourg must possess the most frequently abused genitalia in screen history.)
At the end of it all one is definitely left with the impression that one been given an enveloping, expansive cinematic experience that could be seen as providing an overview that incorporates all the various moods and tones Lars von Trier has brought to his cinema down the years, ever since he first came to international prominence with “Breaking the Waves” in 1996. But if this was intended as some sort of summation of a career phase, though, there is precious little sense left by the way von Trier chooses to conclude the movie that he has mellowed or come to terms with his infamous nihilistic tendencies at all: the final seconds of this work strike a deliberately provocative, almost belligerent, wrong note of such profoundly underwhelming bathos that it makes one feel like the director has spent four hours assembling an intricate jigsaw puzzle but then chooses to smash it all apart just as the last piece is about to be slotted into place, making a rude gesture at the viewer as he does so. It bows out on what is effectively an inane joke that risks making the viewer’s four hour investment in the film seem like the indulgence of nothing more than von Trier’s laboured shaggy dog set-up to the worst punch-line in history. But then this act seems so typical of von Trier that it couldn’t be, and in some ways one wouldn’t want it to be, any different; only von Trier would have the audacity to risk undermining his own work in such a way, and it is completely in line with his contrary, contradictory character for him to do so with such throwaway abandonment and glee. There is also a kind of pathos in the event depicted which only emphasises the director’s quintessentially Danish strain of pessimistic miserablism, mixed with that oddly engaging quality of disappointed Wagnerian romanticism that has informed so much of his work lately.
“Nymphomaniac; Volumes 1 &2” comes to UK double-disc DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of the Artificial Eye label with extras that include interviews with principle cast members Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin and Shia LaBeouf; and a 30 minute live Q&A session at the BFI conducted with stars Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård and Sophie Kennedy Martin, who are interviewed by Edith Bowman.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!