Running at nearly four hours in this, its two-part, “audience friendly” version (there’s a five-and-half-hour uncut version out there as well), Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is less a disciplined, focused motion picture than an all-you-can-eat buffet where the director overloads his plate, and encourages his audience to do the same. It’s a wandering, freeform exploration of the themes, subjects, and ideas of particular interest to the filmmaker — and sex is among them, certainly, but it doesn’t seem to be his primary focus, or destination.
It is the story of Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and by Stacy Martin in flashbacks), who is first discovered badly beaten, laying in the mud and the muck of an alley by nearby resident Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He takes her up to his apartment, gives her a cup of tea, and provides a captive audience for the story of her life. She insists, from the beginning, on her own sinfulness: “I’m just a bad human being,” she tells him, and when he objects, she is unbending. “I’ll have to tell you the whole story,” she says, and boy does she ever.
It is a story of sexual realization, exploration, and occasional debasement, told in eight chapters. She tells it calmly and unapologetically. Seligman listens, but doesn’t leer; Von Trier holds on him, and his wide-eyed attentiveness. As the story is told, their separation is made more explicit: these two are opposites in just about every way (male/female, intellectual/sensualist, sexual/asexual), which allows their scenes to function as both dialogue and dialectic.
Key to both halves of that equation is the juxtaposition of Joe’s story and Seligman’s theoretical asides. For every earthy/scary/filthy sexual encounter she relays, he has an explanation, something taken from literature, philosophy, music, nature. And while I agree with my colleague Judy Berman that Joe is the director’s surrogate, I’d argue that this does not preclude Seligman being one as well. Their conversations feel like the director talking to himself, his prurient instincts squaring off against his analytical nature; he views all of this through a microscope, and throughout the film, sex is observed clinically, matter-of-factly, his style less about stimulation that observation.
Which is not to say that the film is not graphically sexual. In the second half especially, after Joe realizes that she has “a whole world to explore,” Nymphomaniac turns into something like a tour of popular porn site keywords: interracial, MMF, bondage, S&M, bisexuality, high school girls, and even a dash of water sports. Later, to embarrass and shame a bottomless man (long story, don’t ask), she recalls running through all the possible sexual deviations to see if she can get a rise out of the guy — which, in essence, is what she’s doing in the framing device (or, to pull out one level further, with the film itself).
Yet the overcoat brigade (if such a thing even still exists) that attends Nymphomaniac — or, more likely, dials it up on demand at home — may find that the deliberately provocative marketing materials and advance buzz are a bit of a bait and switch. I wish them the best of luck keeping the lead in their pencil during Christian Slater’s terrified, wailing, shit-soaked death rattle, or during Uma Thurman’s primal scream therapy session after bringing her spurned children to visit “the whoring bed” (“Let’s go see Daddy’s favorite place!”). And sexual tourists looking for a few thrills in the S&M section may find themselves wincing at the brutality therein; Von Trier isn’t giving us coy handcuffs and winking blindfolds, but an unblinking look at the real rough stuff.
And yet, there’s a surprising playfulness here. He uses superimposed text through the films: numbers (counting the thrusts of her first sexual encounter, for example), musical notes, parallel parking paths, a “jigsaw puzzle” of strangers to assemble the love she’s lost. A scene early in Vol. II, involving a table full of spoons at a fancy restaurant, plays like an X-rated variation on the old Harpo Marx silverware-stealing bit. And the porn standby of the damsel in distress seeking roadside assistance turns into an inspired comic riff on the mathematical possibilities of spark plug repair. Also worth noting, in that scene, is the sexual persona she’s adopted: per the narration, “I became The Piano Teacher.” A sly shout-out to Von Trier’s fellow provocateur Michael Haneke, perhaps?
Like the work of that Austrian auteur, one frequently gets the sense, throughout the Nymphomaniac double feature, that Von Trier is consciously working us. A sequence in Vol. II details her encounter with “the dangerous men,” a pair of black men with whom she attempts a ménage a tois. It fails because of the language barrier; they still speak in their African tongue, a kind of click-y language that fills the soundtrack as the camera keeps making its way to their dark members. And then, as if that’s not discomforting enough, she refers to them as “Negroes” to Seligman, who corrects her, thus bending the whole sequence into a conversation about P.C. language [insert your own Cannes/Nazi parallel here]. The filmmaker knows he’s playing with fire here, and seems to delight in making viewers shift in their seats, just as he does when Joe implores us to “think about the suffering” of the repressed pedophile, or every time (and there are many of them) he has Joe wield the word “cunt” like the weapon that it is, using it casually and daring us to deal with it.
And ultimately, he’s similarly daring us to deal with the tricky proposition at the picture’s center. Reams have been written about the double standards of promiscuity between genders, but it’s a problem that certainly hasn’t disappeared thanks to that spotlight, and in one remarkable sequence near the film’s conclusion, Seligman (and Von Trier) reframes the entire story by peering at it through that prism. Her story, he insists, is not about her failings as a human being. “You were a woman, demanding your right,” he tells her, and it’s not the first time that term is applied; the sex-without-love club that she forms with her friend B was “about fucking. And it was about having the right to be horny.” When they cruise a passenger train looking to score, engaged in a competition to rack up random sexual encounters, the music cue is “Born to Be Wild.” One does not get the impression that Von Trier is unaware of the Easy Rider echo; quite the opposite, in fact. Wyatt and Billy’s search for a good time, for drugs and broads (and, oh yeah, America), is heroic, or at the very least, mock-heroic. But a woman like Joe is sneered at by “society’s morality police, whose duty is to erase my obscenity from the surface of the earth.” She won’t be tamed, and she won’t be “fixed.” “I love being a nymphomaniac,” she announces to her sexual addiction group. “I love my cunt and my filthy desire.”
Nymphomaniac is, as you have probably ascertained, not for the casually engaged viewer. Even in this shortened and softened form, it sports an expansive running time and daunting structure — and you really must see it as one long film rather than two self-contained ones, as the ending of Vol. I is frustratingly inconclusive, and the montage of clips “from Nymphomaniac Vol. II” that plays alongside the end credits has the unfortunate side effect of playing like a TV teaser (“Next time on Nymphomaniac!”). It is challenging and bizarre, and not all of Von Trier’s digressions and experimentations (particularly in the area of stunt casting) work. But its riskiness and lack of restraint are admirable, necessary even; the films’ indulgences are all of a piece with its boldness and brilliance. It feels like an uncut bag of pure Von Trier. Clear four hours and snort it up.