Film Review: Nymphomaniac dir. Lars Von Trier
Nymphomaniac is the latest film by independent film legend Lars Von Trier. The film follows on from the critical success of both Melancholia and Antichrist, and is the concluding installment in his Depression trilogy. This film is arguably Von Trier’s most well publicized work to date, indeed since the beginning of his depression trilogy, Von Trier has received more mainstream attention than ever before in his more than thirty year career.
But with a director as slippery, sneaky and cheeky as Von Trier one must always be weary of his work. I was hugely excited to see Nymphomaniac as I am a big fan of both Von Trier and indeed most the cast of this film, however there are directors who you trust and directors who you don’t and I trust Von Trier just about as far as I can throw him. Interestingly, upon viewing both volumes of Nymphomaniac in a double bill at Luna cinema I found that it was this untrustworthy nature that makes nymphomaniac the truly astonishing piece of filmmaking that it is, keeping you forever unsure of the direction it will take next. It is at this point that I should probably note that this review is of both volumes of nymphomaniac and I do think the film should be thought of single piece rather than two separate movies. This is because unlike other lengthy films that we have seen split into two volumes (notably Kill Bill which also features Uma Thurman funnily enough) there is less of a sense of separation within the Nymphomaniac volumes, although there are slight changes in tone, this is more natural to the progression of such a story.
To begin I should probably address the ‘pornographic’ content of this film, quite frankly it does not exist. The film unfortunately has been censored here in Australia and a rather depressing disclaimer note at the beginning of the film tells us that Von Trier, although having approved this cut, has had no further involvement. The film does however still feature real explicit sex scenes but to call them pornographic is to not only grossly misread the film but also to miss understand the term. There is nothing arousing about Nymphomaniac, its sex scenes are at times funny, absurd, terrifying, uncomfortable and even touching, but arousing, never. They find their significance, their reason for being in the bizarre way that this film refuses to be allegorical or subtle in any sense. Indeed, there are multiple moments in which Von Trier gives us some lovely symbolic images and then has his characters explain them in detail as if to remove any mystery or question of their intent or possible meaning.
This is a film that is blatant and raw in the truest sense. It is the story of woman named Joe who takes us through her life from age 2 to 50, by telling her life story chapter by chapter to a man named Seligman. Normally, I would argue that to be this obvious and to literally spell everything out to an audience is the sign of a film that struggles to work as a piece of cinema, it would probably be best as a book or something. However, not only does this refusal to tip toe around any subject or question or to offer any alternative to the audience fit the story of the film, it also manages to give us a very interesting viewing experience. As I sat in between these chapters and watched the exchange between Joe and Seligman I realized that Von Trier has done something very simple in order to convey the undeniable question that must arise from such a narrative. Essentially Joe is Von Trier and Seligman is the audience. Joe explains a situation or an idea she has (one that is often morally questionable) and then Seligman attempts to make sense of it, often avoiding it to a certain extent. Seligman is Von Triers expression of his knowingness of his audience and by presenting them this way he create forces us to ask these questions of ourselves throughout as we view each chapter. The questions that arise within Nymphomaniac range from the predictable to the rather controversial. Everything from the obvious, rape, gender, love, questions all the way to questions of incest, pedophilia and self identification. It is in every sense a truly confronting film that will force you to question your own identity; this is of course what Von Trier does best.
Further on from the films thematic elements, the performances of this film must be given a certain amount of attention. In 2000 when Bjork featured in her first and only film for Von Trier and won the best actress award at Cannes, she vowed to never work in another film again, because Von Trier treated her appallingly. Others (including Nicole Kidman) have expressed equal distain for the way Von Trier treats his actors, however despite this he undoubtedly manages to get some of the best, often THE best performances out of all of his actors. Gainsbourg (in her third film with Von Trier) is as always sublime, I would argue she is better here than in both Melancholia and Antichrist. She completely disappears into this character and we do forget at times that this is not a true story, that this woman we are spending four and half hours listening to is not expressing real anguish. She is supported by the Stacy Martin who plays the young version of Joe, this is her debut performance and what a debut it is. I sincerely hope that she is not forgotten, she is an amazing talent. She plays Joe for the age of 15 until she is about 30 and you see her age in the way she moves, talks and expresses her emotional exhaustion.
Before going into any more praise…Shia LaBeouf is in this film and in the rather important role of Jerome. LaBeouf is generally not a very good actor however here, he is bearable and the obnoxious nature of his character suits LaBeouf well, however his accent has been spoken at length as a joke and yes, it really, really, really is.
It is impossible and near unfair to pick a favorite performance in this film, they really are all worth note, it is the best ensemble cast I have seen in a film since Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in 2012. However, Uma Thurman literally made my jaw drop, her scene is essentially a monologue and it is truly breathtaking. Both hilarious and deeply upsetting and even shocking, her scene and performance are equally one of the most absurd and most human things I have ever seen on film, if for no other reason, go see this film for that scene…you will understand why once you have finished it.
There is such a wealth of things one can speak of when discussing and reviewing Nymphomaniac. It’s tremendous use of music and the constant reference to everything from mathematical theories to Christianity and some strange philosophy that seems to be built around fly fishing. Von Trier has made what is possibly his richest film and it truly delivers to its audience. Nymphomaniac may sound like a film that is far too heavy in its ideas however make no mistake, it is a really entertaining film and at four and a half hours I was not bored for a second, you will laugh and giggle alongside this film throughout. Indeed, its ability to both entertain you the way it does and at the same time make you question your own understanding of social relations is an incredible achievement in itself and is what this film is really all about. Yes it is about sex and it refuses to be ashamed of that but at its core, the questions it asks are more to do with what our social relationships are, what they mean, if anything at all and thusly who we are then? Are we understood by others and ourselves through those relationships?
It’s funny, it’s disturbing, it’s upsetting, it’s absurd, it’s disgustingly serious and it is unlike any other film you are likely to see this year. Von Trier has given us an amazing viewing experience that really only he can deliver. A true emotional rollercoaster, it is an example of what cinema does better than any other medium.