Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit http://www.berlinale.de and follow Berlinale on Twitter at @berlinale.
It feels like the internet has been going on about Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac for almost years now. Endlessly discussed, vilified or even prematurely celebrated, the latest from one of cinema’s chief provocateurs seems to have occupied the mind of every journalist, critic and cinephile. The fire was only further stoked by the combination of an edgy marketing campaign and the announcement that the film’s unwieldy five-hour length would be trimmed into a more commercially viable four-hour two-parter (along with the label “unapproved by Lars Von Trier”). With its shorter version already out in select territories, its untampered original premiered out of competition at the Berlinale.
By stretching into almost epic dimensions and dividing his film into five chapters, Von Trier eschews the need for a coherent stylistic and formal whole in favour of a strong diversity, so strong in fact one might think them borne out of entirely different films.
Found laying on the ground beaten and bruised, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is given a helping hand by an elderly intellectual named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who offers to take her into the care of his home for the night. Having piqued his curiosity, Joe offers to recount the story of how she got into this sorry state, one she claims needs to be told from the start if he is to truly understand. She also warns him (and simultaneously the viewer) that it will likely be long, to which Seligman replies “long is good”. In this particular case, he might just be right. By stretching into almost epic dimensions and dividing his film into five chapters, Von Trier eschews the need for a coherent stylistic and formal whole in favour of a strong diversity, so strong in fact one might think them borne out of entirely different films.
What unites these separate chapters is the return of the director’s humouristic side, the one he seemingly lost in light of both Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011). In fact the entirety of Part I (save for the dreary Delirium chapter) comes off as largely cheery and playful, as Joe mostly covers the discovery of her irrepressive sexual appetite, the sense of empowerment it endows her with, and the unusual situations it forces her into. Of course it’s not all fun and games. Compare the whimsical rock & roll attitude of ‘The Complete Angler’ chapter, in which Joe and her friend B. compete for the most sexual conquests within the timeframe of one train journey, and Uma Thurman’s darkly funny turn as the wife of one of Joe’s lovers, who decides to bring her kids to confront the couple, and her confrontative facade turns into a neurotic breakdown.
Nymphomaniac offers so much variety that even when enduring the film’s weakest moment (the aforementioned Delirium chapter, during which Joe’s father gradually edges towards death in a hospital bed), there’s always the promise of something exciting at the next turn. In fact, the film closes with its most enthralling proposition: a formalist’s wet dream in which explicit sex scenes, rigorous structure and a beautiful Bach organ piece mesh into a glorious spectacle both carnal and cerebral.
Nymphomaniac offers so much variety that even when enduring the film’s weakest moment [...], there’s always the promise of something exciting at the next turn.
That opposition between the pleasure of the senses, embodied by Joe’s sexual addiction, and the pleasure of the mind, illustrated by Seligman’s uncontained excitement for the various cultural and factual digressions he interrupts her story with, is prominent through-out, but so is that of the woman’s right to a freedom of desire. Not only does Von Trier not appear to convey a negative reading of Joe’s actions, but there are no such suggestions by any of the characters in the film. Nymphomaniac doesn’t take Joe’s condition as the subject for an issue film, preferring to function as a non-judgmental portrait of one given woman’s nonconformist sexual lifestyle. Von Trier’s signature self-indulgence hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it doesn’t detract Nymphomaniac Volume 1 from being a provocative, often challenging, always stylish and rather fun film for all members of the family above the legal age.
[notification type="star"]82/100 ~ GREAT. Von Trier’s signature self-indulgence hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it doesn’t detract Nymphomaniac Volume 1 from being a provocative, often challenging, always stylish and rather fun film for all members of the family above the legal age. [/notification]