Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published March 30th 2014
Lars Von Trier's take on sexual addiction
Director: Lars Von Trier (Zentropa, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LeBeouf, Jamie Bell
In the past, films about sexual addiction or characters embarking on a sexual odyssey have bored me senseless, but then, none of those films were directed by Lars Von Trier. The Danish provocateur is in a playful mood with Nymphomaniac, a four hour opus full of inventiveness and sly humour.
Stacy Martin (right) plays the central character Joe in her younger years, here with Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), the first of her many conquests.
At film's beginning, we - and a kind gent named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) - find Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) badly beaten and lying prone on the street. Despite her condition, she refuses to have an ambulance or the police called, although she does accept Seligman's invitation for a cup of tea back at his place. There she tells him how she came to be in the sorry position in which he found her.
Hers is a story of a woman obsessed with sex from an early age and driven to seduce as many men as possible. This however is not a titillating or exploitative exercise by Von Trier. To be sure, the sex is graphic and at many times clearly more than just simulated, but it's never intended to be a turn-on for the audience.
Much of the film is simply the dialogue between the two main characters, often to hilarious effect, with the bookish Seligman defying expected reactions to Joe's carnal tales by continually comparing her methods of seduction to fly fishing and other very non-sexual activities.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells her life story to an increasingly interested Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard)
The structure gives Von Trier the opportunity to have fun with the tropes of storytelling, giving a wink to the audience with his cheeky humour and taking a jab at his critics with discussions about political correctness and literary conventions.
Those carnal tales of Joe's are segmented into chapters, each one pivotal to her obsession with sex, though not all have an overt sexual content. It's quite a joyless pursuit on her part, depicted as a consuming addiction and a reaction to her negative attitude towards love and relationships. Often the visuals and writing of the chapters are highly inventive. One section in which her idea of sexual satisfaction is compared to the structure of a Bach fugue is brilliantly conceived and executed.
Jamie Bell plays a chillingly ruthless S&M maestro.
Charlotte Gainsbourg can sometimes be so understated she barely registers, but here she gives a deftly nuanced performance, exuding intelligence and a palpable hunger to continually have physical contact with men. Stellan Skarsgard is the perfect cypher for Von Trier's droll wit. His dry, Nordic delivery is so effortlessly amusing. As the younger Joe, Stacy Martin is quite a magnetic presence and gamely jumps through all sorts of physical hoops for the director. Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman and Christian Slater are all highly effective in their scenes. The only weak link is Shia LeBeouf, whose woeful attempt at an English accent is the worst since Dick Van Dyke offended an entire nation for all time in Mary Poppins.
If you find graphic sexual content or constant references to the C-bomb too confronting, then this is not the film for you. At one stage Joe likens her nether regions to an automatic door that opens when it senses an approaching presence. Nor is this a film to please the raincoat parade. However, if exploring the dark side of the human condition and audacious filmmaking are things that excite you, then Nymphomaniac could very well float your boat.
Some countries are receiving Nymphomaniac in two parts. Australian cinemas are playing it as a stand alone 4 hour film (with an intermission). It's an abridged version of Von Trier's 5 and a half hour original cut. The great Dane didn't supervise the version we're seeing, but he has given his consent to it.