Nymph( )maniac Vol. I and II – Lars Von Trier – The film begins in darkness, a black screen…sounds of water dripping, a street, general banal ambiance…but, this being Von Trier’s new film, attached with its own inevitable carnival of publicity, what the blank screen radiates most is anticipation. Volume II ends with a blank screen, the sounds we here are no longer teasingly prolonging any anticipation but instead darkly confirming a sense of dread. The two visually blank endings, like two bookends of concealment either side of Von Trier’s indulgence of exposure (of sex, but more convincingly naked: of himself) roughly equate to the two presiding emotions of each Volume: pleasure and pain.
Found beaten and collapsed in an alleyway, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is discovered by Seligman (Skarsgard), after refusing his offer to call her an ambulance he instead takes her to his apartment. In the bare and mouldy confines of Seligman’s apartment, Joe begins to recount her story. It is this episodic and chaptered recollection that frames the narrative, balanced between her Scheherazade act and Seligman’s intellectual digressions, the sexual odyssey of her life is revealed. From the polymorphic perversions of Joe as a Freudian child, a cultish denial of love and her teenage conquests of competitive fucking - through to a later lonely fluctuation between death and sex. Meanwhile Seligman, a bookish and self-confessed virgin, patiently transposes each of her Sadean capers into obscure and philosophical analogies. His intellectual diversions comically wander from fly-fishing, knot making, Bach’s polyphony, Roman history and the Fibonacci sequence to a hilariously mythologized history of the cake fork. In these episodes, at play in more prominence in Vol I, Von Trier flexes a surprisingly adept venture into warped and imaginative comedy. The interactions between Charlotte Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, which at first seem stunted and stagey, become a source of well-written and almost (for Von Trier) sensitive human dialogue. Of course this element of human character never goes any further than being an echo chamber of Von Trier, his own inner dialogue counselled into a tongue in cheek back and forth.
Volume I begins its reveal of Joe in the alleyway with the same poetic cinematography that illuminated dream-like visions in Meloncholia and, amid many sequences, the falling acorns of Antichrist. Also, in the slow pan across roof tiles dripping rain, the opening clearly reverberates with Tarkovsky’s Mirror…reminding us straight away of the same laughable audacity that led him to dedicate Antichrist to the Russian filmmaker. There are also extending musings on trees that, again with predictable clumsiness, seem to play with elements of Tarkovsky. Referencing however is also extended to Von Trier’s other consistent companion of idolatry: himself. Music familiar from Antichrist sweeps in as we witness Joe's child drawn to the window – the same tragedy that began Antichrist’s descent into madness and all round snippings of suffering.
Volume I is an unpredictably comic beast, in a way that seems to suggest a new and enjoyable direction for Von Trier. The actress playing a young Joe (Stacy Martin) proves to be an impressively commanding presence, managing to seem both blankly remote and believably, dangerously curious. Her unrelenting sexual juggling of partners and possibilities conjures the transgressive figure of the ‘child-woman’ so troublingly central to surrealist fantasies. From Sade’s Justine and Juliette through to the adoption of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Bataille’s Simone (in Story of the Eye), the character of Joe is safely steeped in literary contexts. I say ‘safely’ as this familiar trajectory and exploration of sexual nature does feel, frequently, a recycled buffet of Von Trier’s bedside browsing; it is perhaps this recognisably intellectualised content which prevents the film from ever becoming as provocative as it - and the advertising campaign – attempts to be. We even have one moment in which a frontal shot of a vagina is immediately followed by an opening eye: like his affection for Tarkovsky, nothing in the film’s discussion of sex escapes Von Trier’s patented aversion to subtlety.
Stand out moments in the first Volume include: Uma Thurman’s terrifically pitched, high-octane performance as an outraged mother (it would stand alone as a jaw dropping and blackly comic sketch); Stacy Martin’s confident and powerful portrayal of young Joe; the cake-fork digression; Udo Kier in an all too brief cameo; the re-interpretation of ‘spooning’; and the triptych screen split that accompanies an analogy drawn between organ music and three separate lovers. Low points include, most notably: Shia LaBeouf’s pan global accent. He somehow manages to skip between South African, cockney and Australian in just a handful of syllables. Distracting but, and I think I’m alone in this, I found it oddly endearing. When a brown paper bag over the head constitutes an artistic statement, who was really expecting nuance??
Volume II is a far more troubling affair. Naturally the film darkens. We move from Volume I's sexual discovery and Joe’s insatiable sexual appetite to her sudden loss of feeling. Volume I ends with her no longer able to experience sexual pleasure, what then follows is a spiralling series of attempts to regain ‘feeling’. It is a vaginal numbness that seems to parallel Von Trier’s own depressive insularity: apparently, along with Meloncholia and Antichrist this finishes the ‘Depression’ trilogy. Lars Von Trier keeps returning to the trilogy, in his existing filmography he has already completed the Europe, Golden Mind and American trilogies. However, depending on your cynicism, this is surely just a neat way of legitimizing obsessions. The structure of the trilogy accommodates for thematic repetition.
Certainly, in this light, Nymph()maniac returns to and re-articulates over familiar Trierisms: chief among them being maternal guilt; sex as destructive; notions of female entrapment and liberation; a dubiously skulking question of misogyny; and a generally misanthropic disillusion. This is why, although wildly ranging and eclectic, the first half's comedy seemed an intriguing change. Unfortunately the second half becomes dragged down into an over fraught, over familiar and over long pic‘n mix of Von Trier specialties. The film’s ending, both infuriating and perfect, seems the most suitable cinematic signature to encapsulate Von Trier’s devout lack of cheer. There are no good Samaritans in this world, every human is ‘designed to kill,’ feeling hurts and sex is a prison. All of which at least testifies the entitlement, ‘Depression Trilogy’, as a fairly good choice.
We witness Joe become employed by Willem Defoe, a debt collector of criminal extremes, in a line of business that she can supposedly use her experiences of nymphomania (proudly distinguished from the banality of ‘sex addiction’). Essentially, having slept with so many men, the premise is that Joe has become attuned to gauging men’s sexual weaknesses, fears or fantasies…all of which can be used to blackmail Defoe’s clients. This advancement in the plot feels underdeveloped, unrealistic and strangely dull. The concept that Joe, configured as some kind of cock whisperer, can amble into any residence and successfully interrogate these clients just seems a bit…tangential from the film’s, already packed, trajectory. Essentially it allows for the introduction of another, younger female character for her to groom into the business; thus allowing a queasy distortion of her, already disturbed, maternal experiences. This is where the film begins to feel over cluttered, becoming more and more like an out of control Greek tragedy…but without the timeless structure. Instead it inaugurates a tonally undecided descent into a weirdly unfeeling melodrama.
However, there is one arresting moment that results from the unexpected debt collecting episode. Joe manages to unveil a paedophile by regaling him with an eroticised encounter with a child; the man is stripped from the waist down and tied to a chair. As she narrates this we watch, to his horror, the steady rise of his erection. Following the exposure of his hidden secret, Joe then gets on her knees and fellates the man. At this point Seligman interrupts her story with a baffled ‘You did what??’ To which Joe calmly responds that this was a man who has kept his desire repressed, a man who’s sexuality is forbidden, who’s urges have never been acted upon… a prisoner to his sexuality, and subsequently a fate which Joe all too painfully understands. Realising him to be a victim of his own desire her act is reasoned as an apology: for ruining his life, when his sexuality (which, as her story attests, is an inescapable force of life) had already been stifled with such strength and secret discipline. It is an uncomfortable and provocative sentiment, one that more pointedly seems to engage with contemporary taboo. This is in contrast to the majority of the film, in which taboo seems closer to a literary artifact than to any truly risked confrontation.
Perhaps the most troubling scene in the film belongs to the chapter entitled ‘The Dangerous Men’. At this point in the narrative Joe believes her sexuality can be awakened with men with whom she cannot communicate. Without language she hopes sex can be as resurrected as instinctively physical and pure as possible. She points out a group of men who are all black and all, apparently, African. What follows is the most clumsy, painful and misguided scene in the film. When Joe is met for sex she is greeted by, an unexpected, two men. The two men, of large stature, then proceed to argue over who does what in whatever, unsubtitled, language they are speaking. This scene is then followed by a contrived, awkwardly framed and offensive discussion of Joe’s use of the word ‘negro’ It is clearly Von Trier gleefully teasing his image as a media controversy, a man accused (ridiculously) of Nazism…so yes, it is another narcissistic whiff of self-parody. Problem being, the film has neither the intelligence nor tact to approach this with anything other than blundering self-assurance. As the only black characters introduced in the film, regardless of Von Trier’s intention, it is a god-awful call of judgement. The discussion of ‘political correctness’ that follows is a pathetically reductive and uninspired defence, all the worse for its blatant ventriloquism of Von Trier’s opinions.
Both films undulate and meander with a ragged ambition. Not officially the director’s cut, it is still too long while simultaneously bearing the scars of occasionally awkward editing decisions. Sprawling and unresolved, it remains, like any Von Trier film, an interesting and opinion-baiting piece. Unfortunately, unlike the cohesive worlds of Antichrist and Meloncholia, Nymph()maniac is less than the sum of its parts. While I believe some elements in the film to be far stronger than anything in either Antichrist or Meloncholia, it lacks the narrative control to deliver its own potential. Certain scenes and ideas do stand out with brilliance, and yet ultimately they are overwhelmed, lost in the vast overspill of Von Trier’s fidgeting ego. 6.8/10