Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin
While walking home, an a-sexual man called Seligman (Skarsgård) discovers a woman by the name of Joe (Gainsbourg) laying in an alley way, bruised and battered. Seligman takes her home to help her recover, and after asking her what happened, she reveals that she is a self diagnosed nymphomaniac and so begins to tell her extremely sordid and dark life story to the least sexual individual she has ever met.
Genius, maverick, visionary, auteur, miserable bastard. All words (among others) that I am sure have been attached to the one and only Lars Von Trier over the years. Well, after apparently being annoyed by the success and popularity of Melancholia, he now has decided to make essentially a four hour film about a nymphomaniac featuring plenty of sexually explicit scenes. Featuring explicit scenes similar, but more frequent and extreme than Antichrist (a film he apparently made when in a bad mood), Nymphomaniac has been inevitably met with outrage and fierce debate. If Lars was to see the huge arguments his film has caused on imdb message boards (which I seriously doubt he would ever even care enough to do so) he would probably snigger to himself. He is a director who makes films for himself, and that in my view should be applauded. Many will find this film boring, many will hate the graphic sex scenes and I admit it is an extremely difficult film to review.
Well, here is my opinion of Nymphomaniac, and I intend to review parts I and II together as they in my view form one film. Overall, for its four hour running time it is in my view a watchable, entertaining and engaging film, which is often quite funny. It is certainly self indulgent and could have easily been cut into one two hour film, and those who don’t like sexually explicit scenes (that in itself is of course a subjective phrase) should of course not watch it, but Von Trier is not exactly the first director to make a film with sexually explicit scenes in it is he? Neither indeed is either gender portrayed favourably within the narrative, in fact I would argue the male of the species come off worse overall, but it is all depicted with an element of humour.
Some would argue it is a serious commentary on 21st century relationships and sex, well good for them, and only Lars knows if they are right. Nymphomaniac is for sure a film that can mean what the hell you want it to. Personally, nothing in the entire four hours taught me anything I did not know, made me see things differently or changed my life in anyway whatsoever. Everything is so exaggerated that for me Nymphomaniac often verges on comedy, and I personally think Lars was thinking the same. Of course there are sexually explicit scenes, but they show nothing that an adult has not seen before, the film is an 18 certificate for a reason!
For me, what makes Nymphomaniac an enjoyable film is the obvious sense of humour it is made with. Many have argued otherwise and I would disagree with them in the strongest possible terms, especially giving Lars’ previous form. Without revealing spoilers, one scene in particular where there is a blatant reference to one of Von Trier’s previous films suggesting a character will meet the same fate as the one in that said previous film, the music and even the camera shots are the same, suggesting a blatant sense of the director just having enormous fun while making it. Watched with an open mind and never taking what happens in the four hours too seriously is the best way to approach Nymphomaniac in my view.
Many scenes depict farcical exaggerations, visual accompaniments to voiceovers add a sense of fun and Seligman’s slightly bizarre comparisons to Joe’s sexual exploits are both amusing and at times intellectually stimulating. Joe’s choices of chapter selection for her story which is then visually shown is for me further prove that Nymphomaniac is made with an underlying sense of humour. At certain points Seligman even states how ridiculously clichéd or coincidental some elements of Joe’s story are, if people fail to see the underlying playful sense of humour behind this film then they really could not have been watching Nymphomaniac properly.
One thing Lars Von Trier manages to do, apart from persuading his cast to do their best ‘happy’ faces for the film’s poster (another demonstration of the film’s obvious sense of humour in my view), is get predominantly great performances from the predominantly big name cast. Von Trier regular Gainsbourg is exceptional as Joe, while Stellan Skarsgård provides effortless screen presence as the naive a-sexual man she tells her story to. The two of them share great on screen chemistry, making the scenes that frame the narrative some of the most watchable of the four hours. As the young Joe, newcomer Stacy Martin gives an extraordinary performance, capturing Gainsbourg’s mannerisms and soft voice perfectly, as well as subtly capturing vulnerability and naivety as she explores her desires. Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe and Jamie Bell do excellent work in their various roles (particularly Bell). Though it is hard to tell just how bad it is a performance because of the exaggerated nature of her one scene, Uma Thurman overacts to almost pantomime levels, and then there is of course Shia LaBeouf. A charisma vacuum of an actor anyway, his performance is an embarrassment to watch. With an accent that varies between cockney, Australian, South African and unnecessarily deeeep, he is ridiculously out of his depth, but then was it part of Lars’ sense of humour to cast a terrible actor in his film knowing it will make it farcical? Only the Great Dane knows the answer to that.
Many will hate it, but in my view when watched from the right point of view, Nymphomaniac is an enjoyable and often hilarious film, happy to frequently mock itself. If you want to find a deep message in there you will find it, likewise if you want to find a reason to hate it you will find plenty of those, but when watched with an open mind and a sense of humour, seeing a true original auteur doing what the hell he wants is an experience to savour and embrace in my view.