This is a review of the theatrical version of the film, released in 2014.
In Lars von Trier’s 1998 Dada-spirited satire The Idiots, the characters pretended to be mentally retarded in a series of anarchic pranks that aimed to provoke reactions and shake up the social order. Just like his characters, von Trier often appears in the role of the idiot, the singular individual who won’t behave as is expected or conform to society’s collectively sanctioned discourse, as demonstrated most spectacularly by the furore that greeted his misperceived comments at the Cannes Film Festival three years ago.
Now, after the epic misery of Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist and Melancholia, he returns to the mischievous spirit of The Idiots with what is arguably his greatest film so far, a colossal saga of lust and life, a magnum opus that recapitulates everything he has done before, encapsulating major themes, character types and even scenes from previous films, and integrating them into an ambitious, intelligent and vivid work of tremendous depth and breadth.
Divided into two volumes of roughly two hours each, the teasingly titled Nymphomaniac tells the story of the troubled, bruised and battered Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she recounts it to gentle intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who rescued her after finding her unconscious in an alley. The first part covers Joe’s childhood and youthful erotic experiences with playful, witty verve, before descending into darker, more painful territory in the second part as Joe’s desires come up against the crushing pressures and constraining demands of adult life. The erudite Seligman responds to each episode that Joe describes with brilliant digressions on the art of fishing, Fibonacci numbers, Edgar Allan Poe, Bach, Roman punishments, James Bond, Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles, the Catholic and Orthodox religions and so forth, establishing connections and analogies between her experiences on the one hand and the history of human thought on the other hand, and in so doing, removing the notion of sin and Joe’s condemnation of herself.
All these cultural references are skilfully and inventively woven into the film, either prompting the revelation of a new chapter in Joe’s life, illuminating unexpected aspects of her story, or offering a different perspective on it. The storytelling is complex and controlled, as well as playfully self-aware, with Seligman sometimes expressing doubts about the veracity of parts of Joe’s story. Von Trier’s obvious love for the art and ideas referenced is never self-indulgent, but thrillingly demonstrates the profound and vital connection between art and life.
Occasionally, the dialogue between Joe and Seligman turns into debates on thorny topics such as anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, misogyny and women’s place in society, the outright condemnation of paedophiles and the use of words like ‘negro’. At times, it feels as if von Trier was responding to his detractors, at others as if he was having a dialogue with himself, using both characters to present the two sides of the discussions (attributing the more incendiary views to each of them in turns) in nuanced, thought-provoking ways.
Watch the trailer:
As all this makes clear, for all of the explicit trailers and the provocative title, Nymphomaniac is not a film about sex as much as it is a film about being human, about love, lust, desire, failings, irresistible urges and irrepressible terrors. The tone is one of ironic distance, but also of curiosity and openness, as the emotions and secretions of the strange human species are observed with quasi-scientific detachment tinged with – for von Trier – a surprising amount of amused warmth. Uncompromising and eye-wateringly candid, the film looks at all aspects of life, with an enormous desire to see everything and embrace it all, no matter whether it is beautiful or ugly, comical or disturbing.
In that spirit, von Trier examines the human body with wonderful, invigorating honesty, scrutinizing it in all its gooeyness, inspecting sperm, female lubrication, shit and blood with non-judgemental interest. The camera unflinchingly stares at cocks (erect, but also at rest in a gallery of penises that humorously shows off the diversity of the male anatomy), cunts, tits and arses; in sex acts, but also in sickness and in pain. Women have pubic hair in what seems almost a protest against the hair intolerance and sanitised female bodies of a porn-influenced mainstream culture, in the same way that the characters saying words such as ‘cunt’ and ‘negro’ feels like a giddy two fingers at the censoring self-righteousness of our strange neo-puritan age.
Supported by intense, in turns courageous and uproarious performances, as well as a soundtrack that includes everything from Rammstein to Beethoven, in keeping with the film’s free, open spirit, Nymphomaniac is an exhilarating tour de force that takes in the whole of the singular human experience, including the body and the brain, sex and love, art and life, and all of the complicated, painful and wonderful connections between them. Astonishing, energising and exciting, Nymphomaniac is a fearless film made by a man with a tremendous lust for life in all its cruelty, absurdity and richness.