I began writing this on the same day as the commercial monstrosity we know and 'love' as the Academy Awards takes place. And while this piece is ostensibly about the new Lars Von Trier film(s) it seems that I can't keep my seething annoyance at the farce masquerading as some kind of artistic validation ceremony out of my blog. If this review hasn't been written at 4.30in the morning it still seethes with a little indignation. So please forgive the opening digression about Mr McQueen: a fine director and genuine stand up guy, I'm sure we can all agree. Otherwise just jump to the fifth paragraph and ignore the following…
I suspect that the reason I politely seethe is because of the connection between Nymph()manic parts one and two and this year's Hollywood binge (and it IS a binge, no matter who wins. Make no mistake, even if your absolute favourite film of the last year and a half wins an Oscar it means precisely NOTHING in terms of the value of the work itself). The connection is the director Steve McQueen.
McQueen's previous film, Shame, concerned itself with a similar subject; sexual addiction, but notably suffered by a male protagonist and whose screenplay was co-written by a woman - the brilliant Abi Morgan. Both films' treatment and exploration of sexuality and post-industrial psychological damage in the early 21st century differ wildly.
Von Trier's story - the Sheharazade-like unfolding of Joe's (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) sexual education and subsequent fall from grace, told over the space of one night after she is discovered beaten and bloody in a dystopian alleyway by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) - makes little reference to pornography, implicitly and rightly conceding that we actually live in a post-pornography age where the depiction of the act should no longer be regarded as in any way the breaking of a taboo, or as provocation in the pursuit of some 'controversy' or grim publicity. In that sense Von Trier's work is far more contemporary than McQueen's work. This year, McQueen's contender for a raft of honours at the Academy Awards - 12 Years A Slave - reiterates the fact that he's essentially a filmmaker who deals more in historical diatribe: a message guy. I wasn't entirely won over by either 12 Years A Slave or Shame despite their fine (and finely nuanced) performances, undeniably important subject matter or even their ravishing good looks. Where was the humanity? They seemed more educational and, while harrowing, always seem somehow viewed externally. But Von Trier's films dare you to become part of the narrative. Or maybe I just suffer from a similar type of depression as Von T, but it seemed that Nymph()mania - woefully marketed as something beyond the pale - packs more life, thought and vivacity into its four and a half hours than MCQueen’s managed with three films. Just don't expect it to win any Oscars next year: it doesn't do middle class guilt.
Back to the actual film:
Never as gruelling as you quite expect it to be, Nymph()maniac’s episodic and chronological form does feel strangely old-fashioned at times, but is peppered with enough jokes and shifts in stylistic approach that it never commits the cardinal sin of being less than involving. This is cinema that accepts ideas as currency and still sees worth in the literary models that preceded it (half of the characters have letters for names, evoking both Kafka and Anne Desclos). At times Joe's chapterisation (is that a word?) of her life make the film seem more like a Defoe novel. This may be why another review saw the film as having a certain 'confessions' quality. Humour and sex? Heaven forfend. Not since the 1700s have we British been able to talk openly and maturely about sex without referring to our default 'ooerr missus' mode.
Performances are mostly great, although the constant changes in tone can throw you at times. Joe’s younger self, played by Stacy Martin, is, at times so remarkably dumb that you begin to question the veracity of her tale, while I’ve always found Charlotte Gainsbourgh’s ‘style’ of non-acting somewhat confounding. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that I think Von Trier’s use of Shia LaBoeuf can be viewed as ironic in the extreme. Of course nearly all reviews point to his awful accent but I think there’s more at work here. LaBoeuf’s character, Jerome, is a 24-carat jerk throughout and perhaps here stands in for more than one character (Seligman continually points out the improbable reoccurrence of the character in Joe’s story – never letting us forget that at best she’s an unreliable narrator): he’s the man who both initiates Joe’s sexual life and effectively ends it, never really rising above the two-dimensional. And maybe LaBoeuf’s recent public meltdown says more about how Nymph()maniac has laid bare his shortcomings. But this is pure conjecture…
Elsewhere Stellan Skarsgård is now possibly the best actor to convey shabby Northern European stoicism on the planet. Here he strikes just the right balance between shabby and sapient. Also of note is Uma Thurman’s extraordinary tragic-comic depiction of an abandoned wife (in the film’s most squirmingly hilarious comedy-of-manners moment), and Mia Goth’s turn as Joe’s young protégé which is, in turns, heartbreakingly beautiful and scathingly insolent.
The use of British idioms and currency would seem to suggest that Jerome’s vowel-mangling is supposed to imply that Joe's adventures take place in the UK. But Von Trier is dealing in analogy here and any kind of factual or geographical accuracy are moot. Most importantly, Von Trier is defiantly resisting the imperialism of American cinema in favour of European intellectualism. It’s really no wonder that most spoon-fed, wet behind the ears 'journalists' regard him as 'controversial.' But any controversy here really resides in words rather than actions. If you balk at the depiction of sex on screen, a discussion on paedophilia may just blow your tiny mind.
While writing this I reacquainted myself with the infamous'nazi' remarks that got Von Trier voted personanon grata at Cannes in 2011. In retrospect it seems so silly that anyone could have misinterpreted his comments, to a press conference dead set on bating him, as anything but flippant and ironic. But I think it's in this incident that we can find the true key to Nymph()maniac - his humour. Reviews so far have noted the lightness of touch, at least in the first half. Yes, shock horror, Lars Von Trier has a sense of humour and at least a third of Nymph()maniac is pretty damn funny. And when it’s accompanied by the bruising Teutonic metal of Rammstein it’s just joyous.
But what of the story itself? Does Von Trier expect sympathy or empathy for a mother who abandons her child for the slim chance of sexual pleasure (or degradation)? Of course he doesn't - because he's interested in the notion that all bad behaviour or dysfunction has more than one cause, more than one way of being examined. It's up to the (assumed) intelligence of the viewer to decide what can be taken from this. Is the depiction of violent sexual imagery at the hands of ‘K (brilliantly played by Jamie Bell as a weasel-eyed S&M Prince Harry) in any way misogynistic? Not to my eyes, because what Nymph()maniac does most effectively is to examine gender differences in the light of addiction. Joe is both victim and proud protagonist (as displayed in the ruthless logic of the last two minutes of the film, which I won’t reveal here, save to say it reminded me of the nihilism of Baise Moi). Is her quest (or pursuance) a spiritual one - as inferred by her bond with her father and his communing with the ‘souls of trees’ - or a doomed attempt to fit to society’s mores when eventually she renounces her sexuality, having spent half of the film trying to regain it, no matter what the cost?
Seligman's digressions and footnotes during Joe's recounting of her life - on knots, mathematics, polyphony, Freudian theory, fly fishing etc etc - act as delicately poised recontextualisation and also as a kind of gentle confessional where he counters her (typical) addict's propensity for labelling herself as evil, damaged or just plain bad. Yet these counterpoints to her imaginative narratives also serve another purpose.
Via these (very masculine) interjections Nymph()maniac also serves as an answer to so many of the wrong-headed notions and slurs that the director has had to endure over the last few years. It's the mark of a maturing artist that he can take these threads into his work and make them eloquent discussion points rather than barrelling past them in some hermetic, artistic bubble of misplaced hubris.
The 'nazi' incident is dispatched by Seligman via a brief comment about anti-Zionism not being the same as anti-semiticism. In Geoff Dyer's masterful Zona he talks about how angry he became at Von Trier's seeming attempts to recreate the mystical nature of Tarkovsky's Stalker in the woodland terror of AntiChrist (a film I hated too). Dyer's finely chosen words always reminded me of a Julie Burchill review of a Deacon Blue record, many years ago, where she pointed out the pointlessness of liking a Prefab Sprout tribute band. Sure enough, Lars adds a dedication to Tarkovsky at the end of Nymph()maniac while referring to the Russian master by way of the 'fake' Rublev icon on Seligman's shabby wall. But here you sense that he's realised how his debt to Tarkovsky has been fully paid. The mysticism which seeps into the narrative - what people like a religious reactionary like Mark Kermode perceive as 'sacreligious' (while simultaneously signalling his fanboy familiarity with 'cult' '70s porn) - in fact speaks of pantheism and more primal forms of worship: it's noted in Seligman's speech about the schism between the eastern (joyous) and western (guilt-ridden) forms of early christianity. This is a film about joy and self-acceptance and, even more importantly, self-responsibility for our predelictions, our depressions and their damaging effects on those around us. Joe's rejection of the bourgeoise politesse of 'group therapy' may be traditionally misguided but it at least speaks of a person filled with an appreciation of life. She chooses the term ‘nymphomaniac’ over ‘sex addict’. And Nymph()maniac is full to the brim of anima, the force of life.
Again and again we're confronted by the notion of the right or left-handed nail trimming analogy: i.e.: delayed pleasure or instant hedonism; live for the moment and regard others as mere collateral damage or live as a virgin, making your head the only source of pleasure. Whether you regard this as a useful analogy between male and female approaches to pleasure/life is up to you.
Von Trier manages to cram all this into a mere four and a half hours. I watched parts one and two in once chunk and would advise anyone else to do the same. And while the film has a logic to its split (the numbers of the chapters are a reference to the los of Joe’s virginity), I feel it should always be seen in one complete sitting. I also wanted to see it again as soon as it finished.
Neither needlessly provocative or a film which gives any real answers for us gloomy Northern Europeans out there, Nymph()maniac may already be my favourite film of the year. One thing I do know is that I will be thinking about it for a long time to come. And hardly anything does that any more, especially if it features Shia LaBeouf. Just don’t expect it to win any Academy Awards. What greater recommendation could there be?