Lars Von Trier’s latest experience is ‘more human’ than his previous films, says Stellan Skarsgård in the satellite Q&A following the four hour screening of parts 1 and 2 of Nymphomaniac. And he’s right – almost.
The story is a classic fairytale meets dingy sex history. We begin in the harsh and dirty high definition of an ITV drama-style set, with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying bruised and bloodied on the floor. When she is stumbled upon by kindly Seligman (Skarsgård), the tale begins to be told in a series of flashback ‘chapters’ interspersed with their conversation. These scenes are surprisingly watchable considering the pseudo-intellectual, philosophical and allegorical subject matter, while their meta-comments (‘no, that’s too much of a coincidence’) are surprisingly and sweetly reminiscent of The Princess Bride (‘Is this a kissing story?!!’). The flashback story itself, despite the subject matter – one woman’s struggle and acceptance of sex addiction, also has moments of comedy and veers from the light-hearted to the deeply moving in the first half. This is Von Trier, however. The second half takes a turn into darkness with very un-Fifty Shades, S&M threesomes and problematic motherhood.
The performances are fantastic, aside from Shia LeBeouf’s unfortunate accent. Described by both Mark Kermode and Peter Bradshaw as ‘Dick Van Dyke-esque’, this added a layer of distracting comedy (that said, it’s totally worth watching just for the brilliance of its failure). Christian Slater, who has aged beautifully, is excellent as Joe’s father and the central performance of Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin gives the piece the heart it needs to tell the anti-emotional tale. Gainsbourg and Skarsgård, although essentially playing opposing concepts rather than people, give human enough performances enough to carry the conversation.
‘Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.’ – Joe
The real success comes in the unsexiness of the multiple graphic scenes; Joe is never objectified by the camera but it also avoids being merely clinical. For a film about female sex by a male director, it never goes down the traditional prostitution route, and avoids objectifying the protagonist with a decidedly un-leery camera.
My main problem with the film was in the last fifteen minutes. I often find connecting flashback to the ‘present’ unsatisfactory. In this case it comes with a sudden change of pace followed by a long and rather obvious rereading of the film by Skarsgård’s character, which felt unnecessary. Explaining the ‘message’ of the film pushed the meta-commenting too far and showed a lack of faith in the audience’s ability to ask the right questions. But then again, faith and lack thereof in people is another of the film’s laboured themes. The final note is a nasty one, showing Von Trier hasn’t become totally ‘Hollywood’.
Although flawed, Nymphomaniac has many redeemable qualities. The time and setting of the film remains unspecified throughout; it feels like a de-familiarised Britain with unsettlingly beautiful cinematography. The event showed both halves together with a fifteen minute interval which was a hefty amount of time to spend in the cinema, but it rarely dragged. If squeamish, it might be better to stop after the first half, although curiosity will probably bring you back for more.