Adventure, Art, Carlton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Christian Slater, Cinema Nova, Lars Von Trier, Manuel Alberto Claro, Movie review, Nymphomaniac Vol I, Nymphomaniac Vol II, Shia LaBeouf, Stacey Martin, Stellan Starsgard
It’s been three days since I watched Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’ Vol I and II. It has taken me this long to work out what I want to say, and even so I’m just hoping I’ll be able to make some sort of coherent statement about it by the end of this post.
These two films, shown back to back at the Cinema Nova in Carlton, ‘Nymphomaniac’ follow the story of Joe, played by Stacey Martin (Young Joe) and Charlotte Gainsbourg, after she is found by Seligman (Stellan Starsgard) bloodied and bruised, in an alley near his house. Tucked up in his bed Joe tells Seligman the story of her life, and about her struggles with her apparently insatiable desire. That’s basically the plot.
I was a Von Trier virgin before seeing this film, I’d seen a bit of ‘Antichrist’, probably only the opening sequence, and had never seen a whole film of his, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
I’ll start with the easy stuff; what I liked. Visually this film is gorgeous; not only is the cinematography (Manuel Alberto Claro) impeccable and beautifully constructed, but the use of split screen, text over the action, animation, weird bits of wildlife footage and various other digressions are masterful. One chapter of the narrative is shot in black and white, causing the whole episode to take on a surreal faraway aspect. In particular the overlay of a shot of hairless female genitals to a closed eyelid was lovely.
Secondly, the acting was astounding. There was a depth to the characters that you don’t/can’t often get, a genuine sense that what they’re showing you is real, sometimes painfully so – Christian Slater’s hospital scenes, Uma Thurman’s scorned woman, Stacey Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s blank desperation, Jamie Bell’s sadistic care, I could go on. Shia LaBeouf’s Jerome and Stellan Starsgard’s Seligman while beautiful, were not stand outs for me in this parade of great performances. Perhaps I should be fair to them and admit I wasn’t particularly sympathetic to their characters and this may have coloured my impression of their performance.
Thirdly, there were aspects of the story which stood out for me as being particularly well handled; the chapter featuring Jamie Bell’s character K is a particularly interesting episode for reasons (spoilers) and the relationship between Joe and her father (Christian Slater) come to mind. The addition of Seligman’s obscure diversions I think also adds a sense of lightness to the film which would otherwise be lacking – a chance for us to catch our collective breath between the cocks and clits and wrechedness.
Fourthly, it is clear that Von Trier is a master of manipulation and suspense; in at least two scenes we were convinced that something absolutely terrible was going to happen and it never eventuates. The flip side of this is that when the bad thing does happen we’re completely blind-sided by it.
Now we get to the parts I’m not so sure about and that is, to a greater or lesser extent, the statement the film is making. We are shown over the course of ‘Nymphomaniac’s’ four hours a number of controversial and/or ambiguous moral positions. The discussion of whether Joe’s prioritisation of pleasure over the care of her child and whether this would have been questioned had she been a man, and the discussion about whether a person with a sexual attraction to children who never acts on it is a good person for example. I feel like this film is supposed to provoke the viewer to think about their own attitudes to sexuality and it’s relationship to morality, but part of me wonders whether the bad thing that happens takes focus away from this by leaving you feeling like you’ve been kicked in the guts. Interestingly the bad thing could also be analysed at a potential statement, but spoilers.
I suspect that this is what all of Von Trier’s films are like; gauntlets of mind-fuckery that you have to run until you come out the other side changed. I think the question one really has to ask is am I changed for the better?
Nymphomaniac is a beautifully made, gut-wrenchingly intense cinematic journey which makes you question not only what just happened but whether you can ever look at people the same way again; whether your definition of right and wrong has been irrevocably altered.
I’m fairly sure I enjoyed it, much in the same way I can say that enjoyed ‘Shame’ or ‘Requiem for a Dream’. Definitely an experience to watch, and not a film I would recommend entering lightly, it should probably come with a trigger warning, all the trigger warnings. Overall, I think I’m going to agree with Margaret and David and give this film 3.5 out of 5 stars.