After 2 years in the making (mostly inside the editing room), Lars Persona non Grata Von Trier gives an orgasmic birth to the final chapter of his Trilogy of Depression. Divided into two halves, and with a promise of a 5-hour director’s cut in the near future, Nymphomaniac volume I and II is not a porn film – sex never looked so unappealing – but yes, you will see plenty of it, in all detail and close-up. It doesn’t matter if you know about the porn body doubles, or the wax male organs kicking about. It looks real, and that is fine because, after all, it is a film about someone that claims to be a nymphomaniac – though if she actually is it, is subject to debate.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsborough) is found laying on an alley in pretty bad shape by the old intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who promptly takes her home for tea and cake. He wants to know what brought her to that situation; she tells him her erotic and sexual adventures since her childhood, using the objects around Skarsgard’s ascetic room as starting points. From discovering sexuality and how to manipulate men with her friend B, to her first lover Jerome and all her sexual ups and downs (pun intended), Seligman hears it all, but still refuses to believe that Joe is as bad a human being as she claims to be.
Von Trier wanted this film to be as ugly as possible after the stunning Melancholia, and the chopped, all over the place editing, added to the apparently careless framing of Joe’s present moment, forces us to remember at all times that we are watching a film, a story probably full of lies (and we are given the cheeky question by Joe’s character herself: do we think we’ll enjoy the story more if we question it, or if we believe it?), but of course, the moments of beauty are there to be taken, whether on the Oedipus moment of Joe’s father’s death, or when Joe finally finds her soul tree. The choice of soundtrack, that goes from Rammstein to Bach without making any apology for it, passing by Steppenwolf (not an accident to use the famous song from Easy Rider on the train scene), is, as always with Trier, just perfect.
Mysticism is all over (there’s a thanks to Tarkovsky during the final credits), while we spend the time divided between earthy Joe, with her explicit stories and love for Ian Fleming, and Seligman, who knows nothing of the real world but from his books, and makes the delights of film academics by doing their work for then, either by putting the Fibonacci numbers all over Joe’s adventures, or by talking on the similarities between fly fishing and Joe’s hunt for men (making Joe wonder why is he intellectually digressing instead of getting physically excited), or even by screaming “you got to be kidding” when two deus ex-machina coincidences happen, just so screenwriting rules advocates (not to use the n-word) don’t have to. No one can accuse the film of lack of humour – after all, when we see the ultimate film citation of Trier’s own Antichrist, and the more film literate part of the audience sighs in disapproval for the lack of originality, there kicks the precise Handel track of the original scene just to laugh at our film snob’s face.
If there was to be a sin, that would have to be the dramatic change of rhythm between part I and II (we were lucky enough to see it back to back, but wonder how does the film work separated, if at all). The first half, where we have the energetic Stacey Martin playing the young, self-discovering Joe is full of humour and great episodes, which contrasts sharply with a darker, all over the place and slower second half of Joe’s sex demise through darker alleys, which include marriage, two Somalians and a sadistic Eastern man.
Despite the depiction of real sex, the exaltation of female pleasure, a defense of pedophiles and a more than obvious answer to a certain festival about the use of the “n-word”, Nymphomaniac may be one of Trier’s softer films. There is no stomach punch to it; even the ending, that remember us all to “forget about love”, is played on a black screen, just as the first minute of the film, thus closing the circle (showing that Dreyer’s most reverent disciple learned his lesson well).
It was tempting to keep the mysticism and give the film a Fibonacci number of stars, but no. Still, Nymphomaniac may not be Love, but is nonetheless a great lay.
Nymphomaniac will be released in UK cinemas on February 28th.