Nymphomaniac: Vol. One and Two
dir: Lars Von Trier, Denmark/Germany, 2013
The bottom line: as my man Nick Fraccaro says, it’s “Kill Bill directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.” Whatever impression the sound of such an incongruous mash-up makes on you will probably be a good indicator of how you feel about this batshit-crazy movie.
Now playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Chicago as exclusive engagements — as well as via video on demand — are both parts of Lars Von Trier’s controversial four-hour epic Nymphomaniac. While the film generated positive critical notices in Von Trier’s native Denmark last year (where both volumes opened on Christmas Day), as well as at the Berlin International Film Festival in February (the site of the official world premiere of the full five-and-a-half-hour version), the response by both American critics and audiences alike has been strangely muted; the trade papers here have even referred to it as a “flop.” (Don’t blame me. I took a large class of college students on two separate field trips to see both parts.) Whether this has anything to do with prudish Americans being uneasy about the marriage of explicit sex and commercial narrative movies, as some commentators have speculated — at least as a theatrical experience; I have a hunch that the VOD returns on this are probably quite robust — the way the film has been curiously ignored in the U.S. is unfortunate: Nymphomaniac is, for my money, Von Trier’s best work since at least Dancer in the Dark in 2000. Among its many virtues, intellectual as well as visceral, Nymphomaniac is frequently hilarious. Well, at least the first volume is.
The premise: in an unnamed European country (let’s call it International Co-productionland), a middle-aged sad-sack named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) finds a bruised and battered middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying unconscious in an alley and brings her to his home to recuperate. After Seligman has provided her with a bed and served her a cup of tea, Joe recounts to him her sad and sordid life story, which Von Trier presents as a series of flashback vignettes revolving around her sex addiction (Volume One is broken into five “chapters” and Volume Two is broken into three). While Joe feels that each of these episodes illustrates that she is a “bad person,” Seligman, a seemingly asexual bibliophile, frequently rejects her claims by using his vast storehouse of knowledge to pose counterarguments. These framing sequences allow Von Trier to, among other things, draw correlations between sex and fly fishing and explore concepts relating to everything from math to botany to the polyphonic music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the delirium tremens experienced by Edgar Allan Poe in his final days. Amusingly, Nymphomaniac is not so much about sex then as it is about finding patterns in the universe, the nature of storytelling, and the need the human mind has to impose order and meaning. Seligman’s disbelief at a coincidence that occurs in Joe’s story towards the end of the first volume is very clever — and self-reflexive — in this respect: she actually asks him if her story would be better or worse without such a narrative contrivance.
Of course, this being a Lars Von Trier film, the second volume ends up meting out much punishment upon the already long-suffering heroine. (Neither those who claim Von Trier’s obsessive focus on female martyrdom marks him as a misogynist nor those who claim the same quality makes him a feminist are likely to change their mind about what he’s up to here.) But Volume Two also initially feels like an anti-climax (pun intended), largely because the surprising humor of the first part is gone: there is nothing in Volume Two, for instance, to compare with Uma Thurman’s hilariously melodramatic monologue as a housewife dealing with an unfaithful husband. (Was Thurman channeling some leftover/repressed rage from when former husband Ethan Hawke strayed? It’s certainly the best work she’s ever done.) Also, it must be said that it feels as though something in the film dies when the effervescent Stacy Martin, a British actress who plays young Joe in Volume One‘s flashback sequences, abruptly departs near the beginning of Volume Two, only to be replaced by the more dour persona of La Gainsbourg. And yet, in the days following my viewing of Volume Two, my appreciation for the achievement as a whole and its provocations has only increased. Have you ever heard a dirty joke with a very long set-up that leads to a very short, sick punchline? Nymphomaniac is a lot like that — only it gets funnier the more you think about it. The critic Keith Uhlich has rightly compared the denouement to that of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
In spite of all of Nymphomaniac’s excesses, and its deliberately sprawling and messy nature (Von Trier here is going Tolstoy-wide instead of his usual Dostoevsky-deep), neither volume ever feels overly long. This is perhaps because the film’s form, not just its nonlinear structure but its cornucopia of different visual styles, seems to take its cues from the unbridled and overindulgent personality of its protagonist. But what finally makes Nymphomaniac feel substantial, and not just an empty provocation like, say, Manderlay, is its obviously highly personal nature. While watching Volume One, I felt as if Von Trier had split his personality between Seligman and Joe and was having a long and brutally honest dialogue with himself about his sometimes-dubious status as Europe’s reigning provocateur-auteur. After watching Volume Two, however, I revised this opinion: the most fruitful way to approach Nymphomaniac, I think, is to view Joe as the stand-in for Von Trier and Seligman as a stand-in for Von Trier’s critics. (The tip-off, for me, came in the dialogue exchange about Joe’s use of the word “negro,” which Seligman cautions her is “politically incorrect.”) When viewed in this light, Volume Two‘s inevitably “shocking” conclusion resonates as more than a cynical twist: Seligman reveals himself to be a faux-intellectual wolf-in-sheep’s clothing — like the critic who feigns an air of fairness and objectivity but only to better position himself to fuck you in the end. I’m still chuckling just thinking about it.
You can check out the red-band trailer for Nymphomaniac via YouTube below. But first, just because I think it’s hilarious, I invite you to admire this poster of Udo Kier’s awesome “O face”: