2014, Lars von Trier, dir.
By Rachel Kendall
I’ve just finished watching the first part of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and have decided to write a real-time review. Essentially this is only half the film so the following is based on my observations SO FAR. Please do not post any spoilers in the comments section!
I’ve always been a von Trier fan. Though his films leave a welt where others only leave a mark, meaning you might not be able to face a second viewing, they are never mediocre, never style-over-substance or veg-out viewing. You wouldn’t want to watch Melancholia when you have a hangover, or Antichrist when you’ve just been dumped. His films are consistently analytical portraits of what it means to be human, shaped by the losses, loves and disappointments that we all face. In other words von Trier films ‘contain some scenes which some viewers may find upsetting’.
With a title like Nymphomaniac, the expectation is already there. Of course there are going to be scenes of a sexual nature, possibly scenes of violence too. Like in The Idiots von Trier has again grabbed a difficult (and, yes, controversial) subject and thrown it out there, for the masses to tear apart, without the need to defend or explain his choice.
But just as with The Idiots there was more to the film than imitation and self-expression, so too in Nymphomaniac is there more to the story than just sex. This is not a porn film. There are no shaved cunts (so far) and gorgeous abs. There are pubes; there is ample flesh, sagging and dimpled; there are stubby digits and pot-bellies. If anything sex is just the medium with which von Trier can flex his analytical muscle. This is a film about compassion, and how to avoid it. It is an anti-love story, narrated by the main character, Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) and pared right down to characters and a plot that fit neatly into separate chapters. In fact the neatness of this film is very much a von Trierism. Everything is mapped out, all loose ends are tied, and each sequence segues neatly (though sometimes a bit annoyingly) into the next. There is almost the feel of a science report – introduction, method, results, discussion. Sleeping with 8 or 10 men in a day takes precise working out. Numbers are key, everything is quantitative, and much is left to chance. Even the decision to reject (and how harshly) or to see again, comes down to the simple roll of the die.
The narrator tells her story, via flashback, to Seligman, the gentle hero who took her into his home after he found her unconscious and bleeding in a back street. It is also a dialogue, as Seligman turns therapist and slowly manages to prise her open emotionally, forcing her to give up her secrets while he, in turn, adds anecdote, theory and random facts about Bach and fly-fishing.
In this first half of the film the young Joe has slept with countless men but there has been nothing particularly degrading yet, no filth or humiliation, but I fully expect to see such things in part 2. Interestingly, Charlotte Gainsbourg has only so far appeared as narrator for her younger self, played by Stacy Martin. Martin has Gainsbourg’s discernable (and somewhat annoying) dead-pan gaze and plummy monotone voice and plays the young sex addict well. Still finding her feet and her sexual flair (bait) she gets herself into troublesome situations but nothing that can’t be fixed. Sex is a procedure. It has a beginning and an end. The end isn’t always pleasurable but the act is always the antidote to the things beyond her control.
There is much to be said about Joe’s relationship with her father, which I won’t go into here as I don’t want to give anything away. This may be a Freudian intention. Or it may not. But Christian Slater as the father is probably the greatest actor in the film. The character is humble and generous while the acting is flawless.
Another brilliantly-played part is that of Mrs H. Uma Thurman has only one scene but her portrayal of the aggrieved wife and mother could give Medea a run for her money.
So far, in fact, the only disappointing actor is Gainsbourg. Her portrayal of a woman so absolutely knocked flat by grief, in Antichrist, was perfect. But now I realise that it’s just the way she is. Gainsbourg is understated; she gives very little. Which is fair enough if your expression and tone of voice do all the work, but these barely change either. I kind of want to slap her into action. BUT, this is only volume one, this is only a re-telling of her past-self. I will give her the benefit of the doubt.
Watch this space for a review of volume 2 – the one where Gainsbourg changes her expression!