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Culture

'Nymphomaniac': Lars von Trier’s wildly uneven sex epic

© Zentropa

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2014-01-24

Controversial Danish director Lars von Trier's two-part sex epic, "Nymphomaniac", is about to hit screens all over the world. FRANCE 24's film critic offers his verdict on one of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2014.

Last time we saw filmmaker Lars von Trier, it was at a Cannes press conference in 2011, and he was babbling alarmingly about his sympathy for Hitler.

Promptly bounced from the festival, the Danish bad boy declared he was shunning the public eye and buckled down to work on his next project: an epic about a female sex addict rumoured to have scenes of unsimulated coitus.

That description made it sound like the aptly titled “Nymphomaniac” would find von Trier thumbing his nose at his haters -- not just those who slammed him for the deeply misguided comments about Jews and Nazis, but also critics of the nearly systematic, and often cinematically tedious, abuse endured by the female characters in his movies. A racy ad campaign featuring images of the film’s stars -- including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf and Uma Thurman -- miming orgasms seemed to confirm suspicions that this would be the director’s most rebellious work yet.

But compared to some of his previous movies (the dreadful “Antichrist”, with its hacked genitals and interminable howling, for example), “Nymphomaniac” hardly plays like von Trier’s big “f*** you”.

For one thing, the actors don’t actually have intercourse on camera; “porn doubles” were used for the most graphic scenes. And, most notably, the two-part film contains some of the gentlest, most tender and humorous sequences von Trier has ever brought to the screen.

Most of those moments come in the first half of what is, overall, a frustratingly lopsided opus, with a fascinating build-up and a follow-through that descends steadily toward the idiotic.

Volume 1, a playful tale of sexual experimentation

Indeed, Volume 1 of “Nymphomaniac”, in which protagonist Joe (Gainsbourg) recounts her past erotic adventures to a stranger named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), is superior in almost every way to the harder-core Volume 2. Frequently witty and often strikingly beautiful, the film’s first two hours envelop us in Joe’s discovery of her fierce sexual appetite, and in her feverish pursuit of its satisfaction.

As Joe (played as a young woman by Stacy Martin, with waifish elegance and a cheeky gleam in her eye) juggles lovers and then falls hard for her shifty boss, Jerome (a terrific, magnetic-repellent LaBeouf), the film takes on the texture and allure of an absorbing, mysterious novel (an impression reinforced by the division of the plot into “chapters”); we don’t always understand what’s going on in Joe’s head, but we’re with her every step of the way, waiting to see what she does next and looking for clues that offer insight into her behaviour.

Among the pleasures of Volume 1 is the exuberant sense of mischief von Trier conveys, the formal inventiveness he calls upon to bring Joe’s story to visual life. Sampling music from classical to classic rock, switching from a rich autumnal palette to black-and-white, using three-way split-screen to contrast differing sexual experiences and weaving in archive footage of animals, the director squeezes his material for maximum dramatic and comic juice. Von Trier’s stylistic approach in the first half of “Nymphomaniac” borders on everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, but that feels suitable for a tale of experimentation -- and it’s vastly preferable to the motion-sickness-inducing handheld camerawork that made the first section of the filmmaker’s last movie, “Melancholia”, such a chore.

There are sequences in Volume 1 that rank among the most accomplished of the director’s career thus far. In one particularly brilliant bit, a lovesick Joe masturbates on the train while scanning the men around her for body parts, postures or items of clothing reminiscent of Jerome. Von Trier illustrates the process by cutting back and forth between his protagonist, deep in lustful concentration, and a diagram of Jerome’s silhouette being filled out in her imagination as she adds what she finds.

And in a few scenes of wrenching sincerity (a word not frequently employed when discussing von Trier’s work), Joe tends to her devoted father (a surprisingly wonderful Christian Slater) as he lies dying in a hospital. Their powerful bond is one of the film’s most intriguing touches; does Joe’s insatiable appetite for men stem from the fact that the one man she truly loves is off-limits sexually?

Plot and provocation ring hollow in Volume 2

Too bad von Trier never bothers to explore that question -- or any others, really -- in Volume 2, which finds Joe continuing to describe her increasingly tormented, though decreasingly interesting, erotic life to Seligman.

After moving in and starting a family with Jerome, Joe (played entirely by Gainsbourg at this point) loses all sexual sensation. When she sets out to get her groove back, von Trier sends her on a series of grim escapades intended, I presume, to be profoundly shocking: an S&M relationship with a weirdo played by Jamie Bell (aka Billy Elliot)! An orgy with two muscular black men! A lesbian love affair!

Either the director hasn’t been out of the house much lately, or his definition of subversive needs a bit of an update.

Whatever the case, the second half of “Nymphomaniac” largely foresakes stylistic playfulness and sensitivity to character in favour of contrived plot mechanics, two-bit provocations -- such as Joe’s rant about the merits of the word “Negro” -- and the director’s compulsive need to punish characters and viewers alike (cue the gratuitously vicious final twist).

Even things that were diverting in Volume 1, like Seligman’s free-associative digressions on literature, music, math and religion, prove tiresome in the long run; a glossary of von Trier’s cultural and intellectual references is fun for a bit, until you realise it also allows him to avoid having to actually make sense of his character.

The most glaring shortcoming of Volume 2 is indeed that von Trier never gets a grip on what Joe’s “nymphomania” consists of. That vagueness works in the first part, since Joe, at that point in the story, is still trying to decipher her own uncontrollable yearnings. But by the second part, when Joe starts making brazen declarations like “I love my c*** and my desire”, I was frankly confused -- partly because Gainsbourg’s muted, joyless performance never conveys the mix of pleasure and defiance that might suggest such a sentiment. Compulsive sexual behaviour is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon, yet von Trier ultimately seems more interested in making Joe say and do extreme things than in understanding her.

Early in Volume 1, Joe confides: “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people was that I always demanded more from the sunset -- more spectacular colors. That’s perhaps my only sin.” It’s a deeply humane, hauntingly poetic notion – a hint of what the film might have been – but von Trier abandons it, turning Volume 2 into a drab catalogue of ostensibly unconventional sexual conduct.

In “Nymphomaniac”, the director teases us with the promise of something new, before reminding us that he’s not quite ready to leave his old tricks behind.

 

“Nymphomaniac: Volume 1” is currently in theaters in France. Volume 2 will be released on January 29.

Both volumes will be released in the UK on February 22.

In the US, Volume 1 will be released on March 21 and Volume 2 on April 4.

A five-hour, uncut version of Volume 1 will be screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

Date created : 2014-01-23

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