Directed by: Lars von Trier.
Written by: Lars von Trier.
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg (Joe), Stellan Skarsgård (Seligman), Shia LaBeouf (Jerôme), Jamie Bell (K), Mia Goth (P), Willem Dafoe (L), Stacy Martin (Young Joe), Christian Slater (Joe's Father), Kate Ashfield (Therapist), Udo Kier (The Waiter), Caroline Goodall (Psychologist).
After the first two hours of Lars von Trier’s epic Nymphomaniac, I said I was still trying to wrap my head around his film – wondering aloud where the film was going and stating that if Von Trier stuck the landing, he may have made his masterpiece, but if he didn’t, the film could still be considered a disappointment. Now that I’ve seen the other half of the film – I have to say, I’m still trying to wrap my ahead around it. It isn’t Von Trier’s masterpiece – take your pick from Dancer in the Dark or Dogville for that – but I think it may just be a great film in its own way. Von Trier never wanted the film split in two (there’s even a disclaimer at the front of the two films stating as much) – but while the two halves certainly add up to a great whole than they are individually, there is also an obvious tonal difference between the two. Nymphomaniac Volume I, despite some very heavy moments, was also quite comedic at times. Other than a very early scene in Volume II – where two African brothers debate, in a language Joe (now played by fulltime Charlotte Gainsbourg) doesn’t understand, which one gets to put his penis where – while their large erections bobbing in front of Joe’s face – there is very little in Nymphomaniac Volume II one could classify as funny.
The first film is about Joe chasing the high of her early sexual experiences – seen in Volume II as a religious experience as Joe achieves orgasm by herself alone in a field and begins to float – and having fun doing it. The cliffhanger that ended Volume I – where Joe loses the ability to feel anything during sex anymore – is what runs through Volume II – as Joe tries any and everything to regain that feeling. First, it’s just with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), the lunk head she cannot simply dismiss like the rest of her lovers – as the two, now living in domestic non-bliss, and raising a child, fuck every chance they get – Joe hoping he can fuck the feeling back into her – and then it’s other men as well. Much of the first hour of Volume II has Joe becoming addicted to her afternoon S&M rituals with K (Jamie Bell), who lays out specific ground rules for their sessions – telling her they will never have sex, but she must except willing to his total domination. K whips her with a riding crop as she’s strapped to a couch – or will punch her in the face when and if he wants. There is no safe word, so she cannot back out once they get started. The second hour of Volume II has Joe moving away from that – and starting her own business, as a collector for the mob – which here is represented by one man, L (Willem Dafoe). It turns out she’s good at this work – she is able to read and manipulate men. There is a powerful, extended sequence where Joe lays bare one man’s sexual identity in front of him – perhaps even he didn’t know what he was – and then Joe provides a way to relieve his own shame. Through all of Volume II Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) pops up – though less often than in Volume I – as Joe continues to tell the man who has knowledge of everything but doesn’t truly understand any of it. He knows everything about religion, but has no faith. He knows all about sex, but early in Volume II, he confirms what many probably deduced from Volume I – he has no actual experience with it. From that moment on, the ending of the movie pretty much becomes unavoidable – especially since this is a von Trier film. Joe is another of his wounded female martyrs, excepting abuse from the male dominated world in the hopes of achieving a form of transcendence. Since Von Trier starting his cycle of films in this vein – in Breaking the Waves in 1996 – the female characters have certainly evolved. Whereas Emily Watson in that film and Bjork in Dancer in the Dark ultimately accept their fate, Nicole Kidman in Dogville and Gainsbourg in Antichrist eventually fight back. Joe here has something in common with both – accepting what she must from Jerome, but not for Seligman.
To a certain extent, one can say Von Trier has been making the same film over and over again. There are certainly references in Nymphomaniac to his previous films – he pretty much entirely recreates the opening scene from Antichrist in Volume II – with (thankfully) a different result. And Stellan Skarsgard’s Seligman is similar to Paul Bettany in Dogville – a man who thinks he is above the rest of the men in the heroine’s life, who turns out to be worse than all of them – because at least the rest of them don’t pretend to understand them. The final scene in Nymphomaniac makes it pretty clear that even though Seligman has listened to Joe’s entire life story - expressed sympathy and support at times, analysis at others – he doesn’t understand anything that she has said – not really anyway.
Like all of Von Trier’s films, Nymphomaniac is at times funny, at times provocative and at times disturbing. Von Trier is not a subtle filmmaker and at times his films can become endurance tests – to see how much misery the audience can stomach. In this way, I think the two week break I had between Volume I and Volume II helped a little bit. I was amazed at how quickly I was able to sink back into Von Trier’s world. Like most of his films, he gets fiercely committed performances from his actors. Gainsbourg is once again game from anything he throws at her – and he seems to want to push her further each time out to see how far she’s willing to go and so far, he hasn’t given her anything that she’s not willing or able to pull off. It’s another brilliant performance by her. Skarsgard is also wonderful as Seligman – another horribly unflattering character by him for Von Trier of masculinity. In Volume II, Jamie Bell is also great as K – who is so seemingly polite even while he dregs up the violence from inside him, and Mia Goth – who plays Joe’s “protégé”, is good enough that I wanted her character to be fleshed out some more.
Von Trier wants to provoke his audience – and he certainly does in Nymphomaniac. The film has generated a lot of press – although if that will turn into monetary returns, I don’t know. Some may be curious about all the sex in the film – but as anyone who knows Von Trier could attest even before seeing this one, the sex in the movie is not erotic. In no way, shape or form is the movie pornographic. Ultimately, I think Nymphomaniac is a mostly brilliant movie – one that pushes the audiences buttons. It’s certainly not a movie I’m going to stop thinking about anytime soon – Volume I swam through my head for two weeks, and Volume II is still there days later. It’s not an easy film – and I do think Von Trier tries to stuff too much into it, even at four hours long. But it’s a film that will stay with you – no matter if you love or hate it.