When I watched Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac for the first time back in March I couldn’t respond to it in words, only feelings. It’s not exactly the kind of film you can gush over, detailing as it does the sexual history of a woman from child’s age, with prolific displays of aberrant behavior, graphic nudity, and pornography, often treated in a manner so flippant it almost transcends provocation. But it was no doubt a film that I loved deeply, staying with me for days, weeks, and months, leading up to this rewatch, when it reaffirmed its ability to get under my skin, reaching deep down for whatever anima that lies within.
Ok, I guess I got over the whole inability to gush over it idea. But seriously, at the time I wanted to say things like “Von Trier is one of the best writers of female characters film has ever known,” of course using Melancholia and my favorite film of all timeBreaking The Waves as foundational support. But I wanted to wait, and give recency bias and my impish contrarian reflex to love anything that fucks with people a chance to weather the expanse of time, and the impending backlash the film was destined to receive, and has received. Though it remains, after eight hours, one of the most daring and thought-provoking cinematic accomplishments ever made, and just might be its director’s magnum opus.
There are many ways to experience Nymphomaniac, which makes sense because the film has many different intentions. That they are able to co-exist in a sprawling epic that can simultaneously be both turgid and rapturous, is a testament to its greatness. And I would confidently make the claim that to be swayed by any one facet towards a final analysis of the film says much more about the viewer and his/her opinion than it does about what Von Trier created. For me, the films that achieve that, the ones that are able to define their audience instead of the other way around, are the greatest films ever made.
You could be offended by the pornography in the film, and there are certainly enough extreme close-ups of male and female genitalia, shots of penetration and oral sex, and sexual torture, to cull the intolerant. You could be disgusted by Von Trier’s occasional juvenile treatment of his heroine Joe, as the actresses playing the role, Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, are forced to do extreme things in the name of art, and you wouldn’t be wrong; analogizing a woman’s sexual development to fly fishing and aspects of numerology might just be heretofore unexplored misogynistic terrain. Or you might be swept away by Joe’s story, finding enough truth in certain aspects of her life, enough parallels with your own, to accept everything else that happens as parts of a whole, of a life fully lived, and fully realized. For me it was clearly the latter.
Nymphomaniac is structured with flashbacks. Our heroine Joe (Gainsbourg) is found bloodied and beaten in a dark, wet alley one night by Seligman (Skarsgard), who takes her back to his apartment and listens to her tell her story, from childhood to adulthood, where her appetite for sex and desire have led to a depression and self-loathing. A recluse and a know-it-all, Seligman informs her story with esoteric and niche potpourri from his seemingly encyclopedic mind that at times seems to become a battle of wits between the two, but which at no time disabuses the notion that he is full of shit. A key moment in undercutting what might be our tendency to side with him is when he tells Joe his name to which she immediately replies “what a fucking ridiculous name.” It cannot be a coincidence that he shares his name with the famous psychologist Martin Seligman, whose theory of learned helplessness is crucial to a greater appreciation of the film’s final moments, which are understandably alienating many audiences. The film is also broken up into two parts, another aspect many viewers take umbrage with, at an admittedly ridiculous cliffhanger moment, which could either be seen as distributor influence, or another subversion by Von Trier, or both; the film is littered with examples of the director’s intrusion, why couldn’t this be yet another?
I don’t know if there’s a key to unlocking an appreciation for the film. I think it’s inextricably tied to your tolerance threshold. That, and understanding when Von Trier is fucking with you, usually when a genuine reaction or emotion is played to absurd hysterics, such as Uma Thurman’s brilliant cameo as a jilted wife of one of Joe’s lovers, or when Gainsbourg is waiting for two naked black men with erections to fuck her while they argue in a foreign language about who is going to be on top. These exaggerations might seem to betray Von Trier’s emotional immaturity on the surface, but their uniqueness and singularity, surrounded by a film full of equal parts honesty and perversion, can only make them part of the larger fabric instead of the sore thumbs some point them out as.
The honesty comes in great amounts from Joe’s relationship with her father (Christian Slater, delivering the greatest performance of his life), which ironically, in a film full of abuse, was the most difficult for me to watch. But ultimately it was the most rewarding, solidifying Joe as a real human being, a necessary belief in order to weather the second half’s particularly brutal and alienating torture sequences. Anecdotal evidence being what it is, I experienced something akin to what Joe witnesses towards the end of the first half, and as much as my sixteen-year-old self would hate for me to break it to him, thinking as he did that he knew it all at the time, some things, like having children for instance, give art that includes them a whole other level of appreciation, only after you have experienced them for yourself. ‘Tis true.
If Volume I of Nymphomaniac is about building the character of Joe, Volume II is a full-on collision of person vs. self, for both her and Seligman, as Von Trier climbs his way out of a black pit of despair and self-loathing towards self-acceptance. Capturing the power of redemption is something the director does exceptionally well, and there are some lows on display in this half that many would find unreedemable. Likewise the provocation adds a subtle layer, practically begging the audience to become complicit in society’s judgments of Joe’s character. In Von Trier’s world responsibility is first and foremost to oneself, a selfish notion that has devastating consequences for both of the film’s leads, while at the same time acts as fitting closure to what has become the director’s “Depression Trilogy,” beginning withAntichrist and continuing with Melancholia.
I call Nymphomaniac Lars Von Trier’s magnum opus because it is a homogenization of all of his most disparate elements, distilled ultimately into a simple tale of acceptance, whereby a desire to improve yourself is born organically from within, along with the realization that the world is not going to change with you. It’s all on display here: his Godardian pretensions that constantly call attention to the fact you are watching a film, his obsessions with breaking a film into chapters, his reliance on imposing pre-recorded music to cue emotional response, his incessant intellectualizing of every last detail, his strong female protagonist, his uncompromising ending, his desire to push your buttons, his jump cuts sitting unassumingly next to moments of gorgeous cinematography, and the feeling that what is onscreen is coming from an intensely personal place.
Nymphomaniac is a powder keg of contradictions forced to share the same cinematic space, and the preconceived notions and beliefs of its audience are either going to light the fuse of douse it with water. Love it or hate it, this film is pure cinema that could exist in no other art form. For those of us who love it it’s a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge and emotion, exploring extreme aspects of the human condition and holding a mirror up so that we might learn more about ourselves. And for those who hate it…well…perhaps they just learn more about themselves.
The Verdict: Rave