- Running time
- 231 min
- Lars von Trier
- Screen writer
- Lars von Trier
- Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stella Skarsgard, Shia LaBeouf , Uma Thurman, Christian Slater
- OFLC rating
- R 18+
The trouble with being an enfant terrible is that the ''enfant'' part eventually falls away. The new film from 57-year-old Danish bad boy Lars von Trier is a case in point: it represents one of the more drastic recent examples of artistic collapse outside of the later novels of Martin Amis.
Billed as the culmination of von Trier's Depression Trilogy – after the relatively impressive Antichrist and Melancholia – this two-part, four-hour blend of lumbering satire, pseudo-philosophy and hardcore porn adds up to far less than the magnum opus evidently intended.
To call von Trier a sadist seems reasonable enough, given his penchant for inflicting a maximum of suffering, not only on his characters but on the viewer as well.
Nymphomaniac's biggest asset is the game-for-anything Charlotte Gainsbourg who, remarkably, has appeared in all three instalments of the trilogy (few actresses choose to work with von Trier more than once). She is a very modern star, whose leading traits seem artfully mismatched: a plaintively inexpressive voice, a body that is all sharp angles and a flat little face, with a horizontal line of a mouth followed by an incongruously strong chin.
Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac.
Well-suited to physically demanding roles, Gainsbourg can seem almost blank in repose, a quality that makes her oddly versatile. In Antichrist she served as a crazed incarnation of the feminine principle, while in Melancholia she was the all-too-human foil to Kirsten Dunst's depressive princess. Here she is Joe, the nymphomaniac of the title, first seen lying bruised and battered in an alleyway on a dark and snowy night. Rescued by an elderly, sexless scholar named Seligman – played with doggy devotion by von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard – she settles down with a cup of tea in his book-lined apartment and proceeds to relate the story of her life.
Since early adolescence, it appears, Joe has pursued sexual satisfaction at the expense of dignity, conventional morality, or anything else: her varied adventures are depicted in a series of flashbacks, in which she is played as a young woman by the blandly pretty Franco-British newcomer Stacy Martin. As a pigtailed lass of 15, she offers up her virginity to a gum-chewing lout (Shia LaBeouf, registering as a parody of a sensitive Hollywood hunk). Her last illusions gone, she sets about notching up as many conquests as possible, averaging half-a-dozen gentlemen callers each night.
All this is well within the pornographic tradition, as are the ''intellectual'' debates between Seligman, the decently worried liberal, and Joe, the self-loathing truth-teller (''Any woman who says she isn't turned on by Negroes is a liar,'' she tells him; how politically incorrect). Yet the mock-pedantic tone, reinforced by von Trier's functional handheld style, remains too dry to evoke passion; filmed with the aid of body doubles and digital trickery, the ''realistic'' sex scenes are like illustrations in an anatomy lecture, explicit but rarely sensual. Paradoxically, in most other respects the film has the unreality of a fable: the nominal setting is late 20th-century Britain, but cultural specifics are practically non-existent.
While Nymphomaniac cannot be recommended to the general public, for students of von Trier's work it is essential viewing, since it lays bare the logic of his underlying obsessions as never before. To call him a sadist seems reasonable enough, given his penchant for inflicting a maximum of suffering, not only on his characters but on the viewer as well. Yet this sadism is a complex matter. He pushes melodrama to the point of burlesque, so his films take on an abstract, playful quality; at the same time, he identifies with his agonised heroines as much as he does with their tormentors.
It is plain that half of him admires Joe, and shares her contempt for bourgeois values; the other half is bent on punishing her for her rebellion, ensuring that she goes through a great deal of mental and physical pain, not all of it deliberately sought. Briefly, a conservative, sentimental ending seems on the cards, before a twist in the tail throws us into doubt once again. Is it possible von Trier genuinely sees himself as a feminist? If so, that might be the most outrageous idea this tepid movie has to offer.