Disclaimer: Plenty of spoilers throughout
In Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier attempts to out-provoke himself (no simple task) while relentlessly interrogating his reasons for doing it. Over the span of the movie’s four hours, Joe, the self-described nymphomaniac of the title, tells her painful and sometimes painfully funny story to the analytical virgin Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a man who finds her beaten up and unconscious in an alley. The result is a pseudo-philosophical troll by turns exhilarating and tedious, something von Trier has fittingly labeled “Digressionism.”
Joe, played as a middle-aged woman by Charlotte Gainsbourg and as a young adult by Stacy Martin, seeks to provoke reactions out of Seligman in the same way that the director does from his audience. Seligman’s often-pompous asides and analogies rarely enhance the meaning of Joe’s tale, and his assumed validity is often as annoying as it is comical. These scenes function as both a framing device for the narrative and an often ruthless directorial self-critique.
Nymphomaniac is an odyssey that oscillates between submission and domination. In Volume I, which almost exclusively focuses on younger Joe, she attempts to embrace her addiction as a form of empowerment. Throughout the movie, but here in particular, she has sex indiscriminately with men of all shapes, sizes and ages. The implications of those actions come to a head in a stunning sequence where the wife of one of those men brings her children to Joe’s apartment.
That woman, called simply Mrs. H, is played by Uma Thurman in one of the greatest performances of the year so far. Mrs. H politely storms through Joe’s modest apartment, asking her if she can show her children “the whoring bed.” This is one of the few scenes in the movie that felt like it could belong in von Trier’s older, Dogme 95 work, with intrusive handheld camerawork, frantic cutting, emotionally volatile performance and the sparse, lived-in blandness of Joe’s living space. The rest of the movie is a refreshingly bold visual experiment. Director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro keeps up with a story that has black and white hospital scenes, a sequence on a ’70s-looking train, dream sequences and a host of other things von Trier doesn’t typically employ.
What’s also missing here from his previous work is the sense of sacrifice and loss, what David Denby of The New Yorker calls “show-off despair.” The women of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are driven by an almost fanatical devotion to either their loved ones, God or both. By contrast, the central characters of both Antichrist and Melancholia are so consumed by depression that both movies project their inner turmoil onto the natural world.
Joe is neither of these character types. By her character’s very design, she is driven by the insatiable devotion to her own pleasure, which is ultimately unattainable. Though the world around her is much more developed and coherent, her story has much in common with Dogville’s Grace, who finds herself beholden to the judgment of a town whose values and limitations she doesn’t share. These women, when pushed, sacrifice others for their own well-being.
At the end of Volume 1, Joe loses her ability to feel pleasure during sex after falling in love. In Volume II, she ends up leaving the family she set up with Jerome (Shia LeBeouf, with eye-roll inducing accent work) and descends into a world of hurt in an attempt to regain her sense of pleasure. Before that comes the movie’s most romantic scene, if you can call it that, where Jerome dares her to see how many spoons she can fit between her legs at a restaurant.
It’s hard to see exactly why she feels such love for Jerome, both because his character’s purpose is overly didactic and LaBeof’s performance is weak. The script suggests an intense passion that the performers don’t really deliver. Their love, however poorly developed, ends up being a primary antagonist here, largely because Joe eventually falls prey to the pursuit of her body’s insatiable whims. Her intense S&M play with an attractive, cold young blonde (Jamie Bell) has Seligman drawing comparisons to Jesus’ suffering, among other things.
The S&M scenes are shot in a drab, almost completely gray and white space that mirrors the apartment Mrs. H so skillfully ridiculed. In these scenes von Trier not only strips away the mystique of popular fiction like 50 Shades of Grey, he also overtly provokes (and fails to specifically address) critics who attack his female-centered films as sadistic exercises in misogyny. In this room there is only a man who likes to debase women, and a woman who is looking to be debased.
Nymphomaniac acts as both von Trier’s wish fulfillment fantasy and his willful act of aggression. The S&M sequences are filmed with an intensity that not only denies sexual pleasure, but explicitly defines Joe’s pleasure as a byproduct of intense pain. Von Trier spends way too much time on these scenes, detailing the spankings, whippings and bondage in graphic ways that at first seek to provoke but then serve only to annoy.
Their longevity and pornographic focus underscores the rest of Joe’s sexual encounters, which are otherwise always filmed in the way she perceives them. This usually means the camera is placed at a dispassionate distance, and they are filmed with a vacuousness that subverts arousal. The last chapter of Volume I features a wild split-screen sequence that illustrates her life as a kind of sexual polyphony with various men, giving rhythm to a routine that soon will become tedious for her. It’s a miniature master class in editing.
Joe eventually moves beyond her sadomasochistic impulses into a realm of pure sadism. In the movie’s final chapters she uses her vast sexual experience as an extortionist. Working for Willem Dafoe’s character alongside two intimidatingly large bodyguards, she goes around gathering money for various clientele.
Here the movie returns to the formally ecstatic and rock-music-infused style of Joe’s youth, attempting to show us a woman who has finally come to terms with her nymphomania and found a way to use it to make money. She torches a car with a molotov cocktail, she whips a man in the same way she was whipped by Jamie Bell’s character and, in what is sure to be one of the year’s most disturbing sequences, she coaxes an erection out of a closeted pedophile as a way to get him to pay his debt.
This sequence and a couple of Joe’s other encounters are pure, insincere provocation. Von Trier cuts between Joe telling a demented story of pedophiliac lust to the man’s shamed expressions to his dick, which gives away his lust despite his efforts to the contrary. As if the scene on its own wasn’t disturbing enough, it is followed by one where Joe explains to Seligman the nobility of pedophiles who don’t act on their impulses.
This is just one of the movie’s many lightning rod provocations, but it may very well be its lightning-est. From there it comes full circle to how exactly Joe ended up in that alley, tying things together with a volatile, if forced series of events. Joe’s relationship to her addiction transforms from discovery to punishment to empowerment suddenly and often sloppily; to call this a bold feminist statement would be to ignore how jealous, frantic and impulsive she becomes as soon as Jerome comes back into the picture.
Nymphomaniac, despite some resonant sequences, feels like a slight step backward for von Trier. It is a visceral and one-of-a-kind work, something that both rejects a repeat viewing and requires it. However, its vast array of references and philosophical digressions, and its varied, deliberate onslaught of styles often felt like a four-hour attempt at masking the deep sincerity about his experiences with depression that von Trier revealed in Melancholia and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Antichrist. It’s an artistic middle finger to his detractors that a fan like me finds unnecessarily aggressive, although with that title and runtime I’m not really sure what I was expecting.