Nymphomaniac, Vol. I & II – Review

 

Surrounded by equal levels of hype and infamy, walking into Nymphomaniac is best compared to the level of expectation one usually experiences right at the precipice of a theme park roller coaster. Here, rather than a gargantuan vertical drop and the risk of nausea, you have a cumulative four hour runtime through which the increasingly deranged Lars Von Trier delivers graphic sexual content, philosophical pondering and, surprisingly, his most coherent movie to date.

 

Whilst expectations surrounding Nymphomaniac have been a mixture of dread and outright dismissal, the film itself is – for the most part – surprisingly effective. Sure, it falls foul of several of Von Trier’s usual failings (more on those later), but it’s hard to deny the film’s outright power as a (mostly) solid psychosexual drama by a filmmaker I don’t believe anyone can truly claim to “understand” or even like.

 

Found beaten in an alleyway, self-proclaimed nymphomaniac Joe is given respite by a sexually-repressed older man named Seligman, to whom she tells of her life and the various sexual proclivities therein. Through flashbacks, Joe’s life is unfolded before us, telling of her experiences with relationships, monogamy, motherhood and even mentorship; it’s a story told in literal chapters, with each taking on a different tone and even visual style.

 

On the positive side of the performances, unknown actress Stacy Martin is an absolute marvel as the young adult incarnation of Joe. Her naturalistic style and wide-eyed dulcet charm fit the character perfectly, while her outward performance is a brilliant contrast to the inward struggle the character seems forever to be facing. Jamie Bell meanwhile, is a revelation in a sadly-too-brief role steeped in mystique but reminding us of the sheer fun a good director can genuinely have with him. Channeling equal parts James Spader and the boy-next-door, Bell’s time on screen is arguably the film’s highlight and, I for one genuinely hope, just the first in a larger pantheon of roles clearly suited to the more than adept young actor.

 

Elsewhere however, the performances veer between farcical and simply inadequate. Uma Thurman drops by under the very strange belief that she’s starring in a comedy, Stellan Skarsgård’s character is given every single one of the film’s worst lines of dialogue (the bulk of which involve fishing) and there’s something strangely sad about seeing Christian Slater try to gain credibility simply by putting on an accent. All three though, pale in comparison to the film’s out-and-out star: who happens to be the one who “isn’t famous anymore”. Say what you will about Shia LaBeouf’s recent exploits in the press, then take solace in the reality that they simply don’t hold a candle to the truly terrible performance he’s put in to Nymphomaniac. Clearly LaBeouf is under the impression that this is his Streetcar Named Desire, but in reality he comes across as falling so far below the level of ability required for his part that it’s going to be genuinely difficult to take him seriously again, lest he skywrite his desire otherwise.

 

Von Trier’s own hang-ups, in the end, are the real failing of Nymphomaniac. Putting aside Von Trier’s rather dismissive attitude towards women in general, his attitude to female sexuality warrants a discussion in and of itself. That the film at one point attempts to make a grand philosophical comparison between womens’ sexual desires and those of child rapists is horrific enough, that it concludes with an act of fellatio is flat-out horrific. It’s strangely saddening to boot that this sequence is but one of several doted throughout that mire the film in an unfairly crafted and rather nasty sensibility that detracts from the annoyingly effective central storyline.

 

Von Trier’s direction remains his strongest asset, writing his weakest. The decision to make the film as long as it initially was (five and a half hours) and then capitulate with two two-hour pieces manages to feel at once both patronising and egotistical. There’s a truly superb two hour film to be edited out of Nymphomaniac, and hopefully the internet will one day give us this (see Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Edit from a few years back), but sadly, after the hype, the controversy, the calibre of talent involved and the overall quality of the film itself, Nymphomaniac is a one night stand at best.

 

 

Catch Van Connor’s reviews in our Movies section and live on Slam Dunk Cinema every Saturday at 12PM on Sheffield Live! 93.2FM or on the podcast via iTunes.

 

In it
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård

Behind it
Lars von Trier




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