Lars von Trier’s films are exhausting. They’re long, they’re intense, they’re challenging, they’re discomforting, and they’re often upsetting in their directness. However, they’re also among the most intimidatingly original, innovative, and expressive of anyone’s work in my lifetime. They’re deeply intelligent in their magnitude of calibrated sorrow, and the full scope of human complexity is always somehow within his artistic grasp. As a writer, he’s a highly literate psychologist, with a knack for hyper-real melodrama, and his oft-used documentary approach brings tangibility to the extreme. Technically speaking, he has more impressive aesthetic moves in his cinematic trick-bag than several filmmakers combined, and there seems to be no limit to his ability to put what is in his deep well of a complex, imaginative, dark, anxiety-ridden mind onto the screen. His body of work has covered the end of the world, blindness, capital punishment, slavery, the holocaust, schizophrenia, panic attacks, the nature of evil, puritanical hierarchy, religious extremism, physical and mental paralysis, and so on. And yet, after all that, the idea of somebody of von Trier’s stature taking on a subject such as nymphomania is an unsettling prospect indeed. Particularly at a whopping four hour runtime. And yet, here it is: Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II.
The third installment in von Trier’s “depression trilogy” (Antichrist and Melancholia being the first two), Nymphomaniac was originally intended to be five and a half hours long, but the widely released “international version” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Being a movie that will only appeal to a small percentage of people, the four hour reduced runtime is suited to fit those needs, and yet, believe it or not, I honestly felt that the film could have gone on for another hour and a half with ease. It’s a novel, if it’s anything, brought to the screen with an assuredness and a (surprising) playfulness, which keeps things moving along as an intellectual exercise of provocation, endless surprises, and psychoanalysis. It’s essentially a therapy session, in terms of its structure, creating a character study of literary proportions. It’s like a composite of all of von Trier’s literary interests funneled into one long film—the Bible, Roman history, Edgar Allen Poe, Freud, Greek theater, The Story of O, and even James Bond.
The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg—one of the few actors brave enough to work with von Trier more than once, given that he’s known for pushing his actors to the extreme, of which, I must note, the end result is adequate proof of a justifiable method to his madness. Bjork famously never wants to act again after her one movie experience as the star of von Trier’s masterpiece Dancer in the Dark, despite winning Best Actress at Cannes that year. Nicole Kidman didn’t reprise her role as Grace in the Dogville sequel Manderlay, and based on Kirsten Dunst’s reaction to von Trier’s verbal diarrhea at the 2011 Cannes festival, I’ll be surprised if she shows up in another film of his anytime soon (again, despite winning Best Actress that year as well for Melancholia). Gainsbourg valiantly lunges herself into a third von Trier character with such commitment, such abandon, that she deserves an award for her willingness to participate in a mad genius’s thoughtful emotional experiments as many times as she has. In this film, her character Joe goes through every conceivable emotion one could expect to inhabit in a given acting scenario, but amplified to meet the lengthy runtime, and the von Trier factor of insatiable exhaustiveness. She, and every other actor, is so game to meet the (admittedly questionable) intent of the director, that they willingly put themselves in a compromised position to complete the film as he so desired.
The cast of international actors—both stars and newcomers—were all very brave to trust in von Trier’s vision, running a huge risk of having a scarlet letter embroidered onto their resume for the rest of their careers if things went disastrously wrong with this project, which they so easily could have. However, as was once said by a colleague of his, von Trier’s name alone “is a provocation”, so despite the fact that working with him in general is always a risk, he manages to maintain a certain degree of integrity and respect amongst his peers. Though he’s been blacklisted from Cannes for his misguided attempt at a joke, his films seem to have been among the most rewarded—and controversial—at that beloved festival the past thirty years, always being contenders for big prizes, and frequently winning. He’s an attention-getter on an international stage because he knows no boundaries, and so seems to attract actors with the same unhinged spirit. In this case, Shia LeBeouf was chomping at the bit to do anything in a von Trier film, saying, “he’s one of the only guys right now actually inventing things” and that he found the script to be “powerful”, and that the truth within it frightened him, even though he admits he didn’t understand it all. LeBeouf’s turn as Jerome, the center of Joe’s love life, is without a doubt his best work yet that I’ve seen. Though LeBeouf has continuously been his own career’s worst enemy, it’s unfortunate that his personal life has experienced such a downward spiral recently, as he continues to show true potential as an actor.
The film opens as Gainsbourg’s Joe is discovered in an alleyway—beaten, bruised, bloody, and unconscious—by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), an aging bookworm who takes her in and provides her with some tea, some comfort, an open ear, and a curious mind. Thus begins the saga of Joe, a character so richly shaped by a masterful novel of a script and, of course, a stellar, bold performance by Gainsbourg (not to mention Stacy Martin, who plays Young Joe through a good portion of the film). Joe is a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, a highly intelligent, if undereducated, voracious explorer of the inner workings of her mind and body. The story is told subjectively through her eyes, with periods of objective reflections provided by Seligman’s overly learned perspective.
With the interaction between these two characters, and the non-linear narration of Joe’s story, there’s always something lurking around the corner, like it’s perpetually on the verge of something new—be it cinematic experimentation, introspective epiphany, or academic digressions—it feels like von Trier’s guiding the viewer to a major revelation about the human condition. And if you allow the film to get as deep in your head as he did into the characters, it’s hard to say he didn’t, in fact, do just that. And because it’s a von Trier film, there’s an unnerving tension that permeates beneath, keeping everything afloat with nervous energy, making it hard to look away, no matter how discomforting the whole experience is. The film is, without a doubt, a masterpiece—as far as script, execution, performances, depth, innovation, psychology, photography, boldness, ambition, etc—but also, without a doubt, deeply unpleasant to watch at times. A lot of times, actually.
Von Trier packs the lengthy running time with so much to think about, by the time it’s finished, it’s like having read a half dozen books in quick succession. The story is divided into chapters, with titles based on things Joe sees in Seligman’s room (The Mirror, Mrs. H, etc). Numbers and mathematics play a key part in the story, too—for instance, Joe dwells on being haunted by the combination of numbers three and five, to which Seligman explains the Fibonacci sequence as a way to understand the significance of those numbers. At one point, the composition style of Johann Sebastian Bach is used to deconstruct Joe’s sex life in a dazzlingly thought provoking sequence, which, again, utilizes the importance of numbers, but also harmony and foundation. There are parallels made to fly fishing—using a nymph as bait, for instance—and frequent nature, historical, religious, and literary analogies, symbols, and metaphors throughout.
The 17th Century novel The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton is used by Seligman as a starting point for analyzing humans mirroring nature, and using literature as analogies for Joe’s story. Many of the characters Joe speaks of have single initials as names: B, S, N, H, P, etc—clearly, one of the many odes to The Story of O, of which von Tier has been infatuated with from an early age, having made a short film in the late 70’s about it, and was also used as much of the basis for his film Manderlay. Joe explains a vision she had during an orgasm at an early age, where she was surrounded by the spirits of two women she didn’t recognize, to which her description allows Seligman to inform her they were, in fact, the Whore of Babylon and Emperor Claudius’s Wife—aka, “the most famous nymphomaniac in history.” Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is used as a basis for a black and white chapter involving Joe’s dad on his death bed (played by Christian Slater, in a very powerful performance). At one point, von Trier even uses a reference to his own film Antichrist to toy with the audience members who would be familiar with the ingredients of the reference, but doesn’t actually follow-through with where he makes you think he’s going with it.
The information presented is so wide-ranging and relevant, that it’s like a blueprint for everything that’s led to this point and time in human existence (trust me, that’s not an exaggeration). It’s mostly about sex, after all—you know, the thing that got us all here in the first place—but explored through a very sophisticated, all-encompassing lens. It makes sexuality in all its forms a vehicle by which to discuss as many things as possible about civilization—again, something we wouldn’t have without reproduction. It examines man’s ability to repress its inner nature, foregoing carnal desires in pursuit of puritanical purity, ideological transformation, or simply to be able to co-exist in a less animalistic, more predictable and ordered world. These repressions can lead to delusions, the false belief that we are separate entities who should feel ashamed of our individuality or ashamed of our direct ties to the natural world. And that shame can manifest itself in a variety of reckless and deviant ways, as explored in this film. We’re a bunch of mixed up creatures with a drive to procreate in a world of savages and predators, and we have myriad ways of creating a sense of structure to the confusing chaos that is life—be it mathematics, religion, literature, music, monogamy, and so on, hence the way in which all these ideas are woven into this story.
Joe is very much a renegade against established structures of existence, attempting to discover a truth more suited to her nature, one that has yet to be established in society, as her internal compass is seen as inherently taboo. This is probably best exemplified by her stint in rehab for her addiction, in which she succumbs to the cult-like structure of the rehabilitation group at first, only to fiercely reject it later on philosophical grounds. During her tirade, she refers to the head of the group as “the morality police”, saying she’s there to make things society is uncomfortable with disappear so they don’t have to think about them. I don’t need to elaborate on the importance of that point in a film like this, as von Trier forces the viewer to confront as much discomfort as they can stomach in this tome.
Though there is plenty of sex in the film (obviously), it’s done almost always to serve the unusual narrative of the story—that is, it’s part of the experience, a special flavor to make the film that much more distinctive, that much more honest, and always done with plenty of consent (and even displacement) of those involved. The scenes of unsimulated sex were completed with the aid of porno actors—who consensually agreed to the terms of their involvement—as well as prosthetics and super-imposition. Despite it being a composite of various photographic and filmic tricks, the result is seamless. The authenticity of the sexual depictions, combined with the scope of the story, and the depth of the character study, makes it a vivid experience that you pass through and come out the other side having seen the world through another pair of eyes for a few hours.
The Blu-ray release from Magnolia Home Entertainment has the film divided, with each volume on a separate disc. It’s a good thing they’re released together, because they are not separate films. At all. They work as single volumes only due to their length, and Volume I does end on a strong turning point for the character, but to get the full experience, you must watch them back to back with little to no time between viewings. It is meant to be a full meal, not a series of appetizers, and should be treated as such. You should feel like you’ve eaten too much by the end of it, and have a lot to digest. The Blu-ray also includes some featurettes about the making of the movie, interviews with the cast, and some trailers. The cover art is one of the most fascinating things about the release, as it features a grid of nine actors, all shirtless, photographed from the shoulders up, all doing an “o” face. Lars von Trier is a rascal. He is also a genius. If you don’t believe me, watch Nymphomaniac—even though you may wish you never did.