Editor’s Notes: Nymphomaniac opens in limited release March 21st.
Nymphomaniac begins with a familiar enough motif. As snowflakes fall delicately from the sky and the trickle of water chastely tings off tin roofs, we happen upon a crumpled Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying motionless in an alley, her face worn and ecchymotic, her skin stained sanguine from trauma. The concept here is, in some ways, one of defense and humility on the part of filmmaker Lars von Trier – that despite moments of concord and tranquility, there will always exist, if we’re to look hard enough, pockets of human abjection. An artist often implicated on misogynistic criticisms, von Trier’s opening to Nymphomaniac seems like something of a bifurcated plea bargain, at once confessing that he’s headed for familiarly offensive territory but arguing the circumstantiality of such charges. It’s true, of course, that the women of his films are oftentimes models for all varietals of abuse, though I would argue that this is never carried out in fetishistic or apathetic tenors. No, instead he often employs such brands of battery and subjugation as methods for pointing out systematic and institutionalized bias, being a bit theoretically and formally hyperbolic in the process, but not, I don’t think, ever being without a fitting conceptual alibi. The women who suffer in his works do so in an allegorical sense, not unlike the protagonists of the sometimes ill-criticized Coen brothers; tragedy and endurance become things to be examined rather than scorned, and the events are less used for characterization than social critique.
An artist often implicated on misogynistic criticisms, von Trier’s opening to Nymphomaniac seems like something of a bifurcated plea bargain, at once confessing that he’s headed for familiarly offensive territory but arguing the circumstantiality of such charges.
With all this said, Nymphomaniac marks a minor change in the Danish auteur’s tendencies, as Joe is, at least on the surface, more in control of her environment and interactions than the majority of his heroines, first impressions aside. Sheltered from the elements by agamic bibliophile Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), Joe confesses to the Good Samaritan the details of her backstory, ostentatiously labeling herself a “horrible” person as if, like an antithetical avatar of von Trier, she’s entertaining the moral statements others would thrust upon her. As she admits to some ostensibly sordid details throughout her disclosure, Seligman offers the woman a torrent of unsolicited empathy and pardon, often honing his cultural acuity to draw parallels between the events she unfurls and timeless artistic works and figures. Together the two make up quite the dichotomy, with she playing the part of irrepressible physicality and he filling the niche of restless academia; their perspectives fuel a colloquy of experience vs. knowledge, as he excites not at the fleshy particulars of her tale and instead becomes aroused, intellectually speaking, at the chance to divulge in literary tangents.
In this and other ways, the narrative belongs as much to Seligman as it does Joe, despite the innately personal nature of that which she confides. In reviewing her sexual history, the female principal draws from objects strung about the stranger’s bedroom, using them as catalysts for transitioning into the next chapter of her carnal chronicles. And because Seligman is, by his own admission, a man of happenstantial celibacy, his purview of the proceedings is one of curious but objective distance, causing his interjections and metaphorical asides to feel strange in their enthusiasm; by constantly rationalizing her conduct and drawing links between it and art, he becomes less a model of humanity than a calculated reflection of it. What makes the entire thrust of the film interesting is the uncertainty inherent to each of the two main characters, for everything learned of them is anecdotal. We’re inclined to believe Joe as she spins an episodic spreadsheet of her sins, for few would be wont to put a damning slant on their autobiography, but we’re still left to take things at her word. Moreover, her host seems as honest as he does hospitable, but all that is gleaned of his personality is done so in reactionary fashion – his character is built entirely from responses and insights to Joe’s rhetoric. Compounding this already complicated dynamic is its tacit competitiveness, with Joe trying to impress upon her censurable ways and Seligman, without prior knowledge of the woman, hilariously levying for self-exoneration. (In one of his more absurd advocacies of behavior, he defends the seduction of a married man en route to conceive a child with his wife, because “If you hold the load too long, the sperm can die, or worse, degenerate,” thus limning her act of selfishness as one of altruism.)
With all this said, Nymphomaniac marks a minor change in the Danish auteur’s tendencies, as Joe is, at least on the surface, more in control of her environment and interactions than the majority of his heroines, first impressions aside.
Back in 2011 when ol’ Lars sat at Cannes amongst his Melancholia cast in what could now, in hindsight, be called a Last Supper tableau, he quipped that he was going to make a “Really, really, really hardcore film next time,” adding that he was doing his “best” to actualize such an idea. No one took him very seriously at the time, with most regarding the mark as a crass repartee to the staleness of media questions; it wasn’t until later in the month that we learned the statement’s veracity. The resulting film, to be sure, is one less attentive to sexual depiction than to sexual desire, and specifically takes aim at subverting the usual tropes of feminine physical enlightenment within cinematic facsimiles. Joe, whose persona is meant to be more insular than emblematic – that is, she’s intended not as an ambassador for female eroticism and instead acts as an example of how filmmakers could alternately tend to the subject – slowly comes to apprehend and appreciate the strength of her attractiveness, and accordingly, the predictable behavioral patterns of men in sexual situations. Drawing from the intricately tied artificial flies adorning Seligman’s bedroom, the details of Joe’s first conquests are interlaced with parallels to fishing techniques, a motif that braids the idea of human sexuality with base biological impetuses. Von Trier has already mined such notions with aplomb in Antichrist, wherein he posited anxiety and, to a more significant degree, insanity as symptoms of the constant war between our natural physiological urges and societally spawned artifice; emotional stability is constantly threatened to be torn asunder by these combative realities. Nymphomaniac differs in that it touches on such themes in less oblique and comprehensive ways. Rather than further any of the conceptually fertile hypotheses introduced throughout Joe’s memoirs, von Trier is content in discarding them, like Joe with her lovers, shortly after their most obvious use is wrung from them.
Whether or not the impulsivity that so defines the film’s narrative and aesthetic flourish are intended to reflect Joe’s disposition – making the manifestations apropos of the storyteller’s metamorphic psyche – is tough to ascertain given the version of Nymphomaniac we’re currently privy to, which has been pared down in the name of, what else, “commercial viability”. (I realize this welcomes a smattering of circumcision-tinged witticisms, but I’ll leave those to you, dear reader.) The four-hour cut of the picture available to us is no less sprawling, idiosyncratic, or self-depreciatingly hilarious (the calculatedly ego-priming compliments Joe gifts her lovers suggests the language of sex strokes the male psyche as much as the act itself) than what one would expect of the director, but I find that it does want for cohesion and rhythm. As Joe’s tale nears its terminal anecdotes, the work’s shifts in tone and structure feel a bit too abrupt, the narrative too delicate and wispy to shoulder such changes. Rather important musings on governed human ecology and sexual application, even to the point of weaponization, feel anemic in development, as if these sentiments are included more for caress than climax. Naturally, we could deem these thematic abbreviations appropriate, for they mimic the film’s nurturing approach to character and personal development, lofting them even above the director’s usual attentiveness to subtext and theme; what’s missing, though, is a subsuming nexus – an interstitial fluid that flows beneath all the on-the-nose surface observations and unifies the elements of Nymphomaniac into something organically depthless and rich. Knowing that there may exist such an encompassing whole, the work we’re now permitted ultimately feels like something of a tease.
[notification type=”star”]76/100 ~ GOOD. The four-hour cut of the picture available to us is no less sprawling, idiosyncratic, or self-depreciatingly hilarious (the calculatedly ego-priming compliments Joe gifts her lovers suggests the language of sex strokes the male psyche as much as the act itself) than what one would expect of the director, but I find that it does want for cohesion and rhythm.[/notification]