A riot of sex, literary references and A-list performances in two volumes, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is an erotic catechism on the agony and the ecstasy.
Sexy Beast by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s something almost biblical about Lars von Trier’s latest film. Perhaps it’s the director’s conversion to Catholicism that delights in a mortification of the cinematic flesh, but by the end of Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II, sex, in all its fleshy explicitness, seems to have been transfigured – the body’s craving for erotic satisfaction a metaphor for the soul’s own yearning for religious ecstasy. Maybe it’s Seligman’s Jewish heritage or the rugelach he serves with a cake fork. Or the young Joe’s mountainside spontaneous orgasm, where she’s visited by the Whore of Babylon and Valeria Messalina – the wife of Roman Emperor Claudius and the first nymphomaniac. But as she wanders from one sexual adventure to the next, Joe is almost virginally disinterested in the men that surround her – taking this holiest of communions without jealousy, anger or greed. It’s Von Trier at his most outrageous, putting sex on the table (and the bed, and sofa…) for discussion, demanding we scrutinise our own reactions and our own moral attitudes to sex.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is lying on the ground in an alleyway, bloodied and bruised. She’s found by well-read bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who takes Joe back to his grimy flat for some rest and a cup of tea. Taking the objects in his room as inspiration for the titles of each of her life’s episodes, Joe tells her story in flashback – from her distant mother (Connie Nielsen) to her tree walks in the woods with her father (Christian Slater) as well as her sexual awakening as a young girl (Stacy Martin) – losing her virginity with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) and competing with B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) for a bag of chocolates by racking up the men on a train. Through randomised affairs (and arguments with the wife of a love-struck playdate, Mrs H (Uma Thurman)) to less-than-blissful domesticity, sadomasochism with K (Jamie Bell), sex with African strangers and lesbian love interest P (Mia Goth), Joe reveals her sex life – her addiction, numbness and an unstoppable yearning for new feeling.
It’s not too difficult to extrapolate Joe’s story to the everyman – after all she is just an average Joe – her desires a very human expression of unbounded sexuality. But along with Seligman, she also represents an avatar for the filmmaker, just like the confusion between He and She in Antichrist. For with her honest story she aims to shock, as she reveals the unredeeming, depraved depths of human nature, forcing us to confront our own bourgeois morality. There are elements too borrowed from Von Trier’s previous films – the toddler on the balcony reminiscent of Antichrist and the episodic structure and eroticised faith of Breaking The Waves. But there’s also an original intertextuality to Nymphomaniac, each shocking thrust parried with a flippant literary riposte – from fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers to Bach’s polyphony, PPK automatic pistols and Edgar Allan Poe. For Nymphomaniac is knowingly contrived, its references shoehorned in to provide a veil of decency or perhaps a dazzling kaleidoscope of ideas – both amusing and gloriously irrelevant.
It’s a strange universe that Lars von Trier creates – a grimy underworld scored by Rammstein’s Führe Mich. A nowhere land with British money, but populated with American, Danish and British actors – whose accents create a fictional Babel beyond time and place. Or at least nobody seems to care very much for explanations. It’s dirty, seedy and self-mockingly funny – where every emotion, such as Joe’s father’s death or her maternalism towards P, can be contaminated by sex. Where all every man wants is sex. Sex first – morality, wife and children last. A world turned upside-down by female promiscuity. For when lifelong virgin Seligman adds his desires into the mix in the final reel, Lars von Trier shows there is no hope for mankind – his maquette of the virgin and whore exploded, as our moral touchstone Seligman is also overwhelmed by desire.
Lars von Trier intends for Joe to be an everywoman – human sexuality pushed to its extreme – the biblical scapegoat taking on all our sins. But he also reduces her to a cipher by narrowing her emotions to the amphitheatre of sex. Both Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg play Joe as a naïve ingénue, whose lack of gumption and feist make her more infuriating than doe-eyed. And her final incarnation as an articulate, savvy and intelligent raconteur seems to come from nowhere. But with its ensemble cast (and a scene-stealing performance from Uma Thurman who brings more furious life to Lars von Trier’s film than any other character is permitted), Nymphomaniac relies on its structure of episodes with A, B, C, D, H, K, L and S to weave meaning into its simple story. It’s original and amusing, with its chronological flashbacks and narrative play, but Nymphomaniac is muddied by its director’s two fingers up to the world – both critics and viewers alike. But whether it’s art or sex for its own sake, Nymphomaniac offers a comprehensive reflection of the controversial director’s troubled mind – an inferno filled with both sin and repentance.
Nymphomaniac is released on 22nd February 2013 in the UK