Dir. Lars von Trier
[As this is a review of both parts of the film, I’m going to get into the ending of the first part and slightly touch on the ending of the second. If you are spoiler wary, proceed with caution. Suffice to say, this is a positive review.]
Charlotte Gainsbourg is both enviable and sympathetic in her role as director Lars von Trier’s go-to actress for his past three films. He is one of the best writers of female roles as well as being the most punishing. This isn’t isolated to the “Depression Trilogy”, which includes Antichrist, Melancholia and now Nymphomaniac, just ask Dogville’s Nicole Kidman. If I recall correctly, Kidman basically told the director off in the Cannes press conference for that film, leaving von Trier to recast her role in the sequel. Someone should create some sort of medal of honor for what she’s gone through in these films. I know it’s all acting but I doubt anyone is that good at compartmentalizing.
After another stunning opening sequence of sound and image, Nymphomaniac begins with a bloody and bruised Joe (Gainsbourg) being found lying in an alleyway by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) as he’s returning home from the corner shop. Concerned for her, he takes her in to his apartment and through some gentle insistence he tries to figure out what has happened to her, despite Joe’s state of complete self-loathing and warning that it will be a long story.
It’s certainly not a coincidence that Skarsgard’s character is named Seligman. He shares the name with the highly regarded founder of “positive psychology”, Martin Seligman. Throughout the film, Seligman tries to reassure Joe of her self-proclaimed horrible actions as being reasonable or rational behaviour. It’s a great device for the film. Seligman is also an avid fly-fisherman and Joe’s early seduction stories often find a parallel with how to use a proper lure and the different tricks of the fisherman’s trade. It’s all part of nature, my dear.
Contrary to what the advertisements and even the director might want you to believe, the film is filled with humor. Much more so than his previous two films. There is a playfulness at hand between the way von Trier films Joe’s guilt-ridden tales and Seligman’s counter-stories of the habits of fish or the correlation between her losing her virginity and “the Fibonacci numbers”. It may reach its comedic apex when Seligman tries to pass her a story about the social importance of cake forks when Joe expresses her distaste for them.
Another clever device is how Joe chooses to begin each chapter of her story. Yes, the use of chapters and their seemingly requisite title cards in film can by now be a bit tiresome but von Trier manages to give these title cards their own humorous personality. Joe first notices Seligman’s fly lure on the wall for the first chapter and subsequently searches his room for the item that will trigger her next. It lends a very natural approach to the storytelling and reinforces the fine attention to detail that is always in von Trier’s films.
For the first half of the film - the Volume One - young Joe is represented in her story by actress Stacy Martin, a sexually aggressive wisp of a beauty who at an early age begins to follow an anti-love manifesto developed by herself and her conquesting colleague, B. They need nothing more than the reward of chocolates to go tearing through a (literal) train full of lads to prove their prowess. Cracks in this lifestyle begin to show when B confides that she has indeed fallen in love - and it, shudder, makes the sex better. Joe retaliates by going the opposite direction and taking on as many men as she can fit into her schedule. Her methodology of how to juggle these men is quite funny and boils down to a simple roll of a die.
This lifestyle comes to a brilliant climax of pathos when her juggling fails her and the wife of one of her lovelorn suitors, a sadistically heartbroken Uma Thurman as “Mrs. H”, brings her two young children to her apartment to confront both of them. It is the first time the positive psychology of Seligman begins to show some cracks of its own. It is difficult to justify Joe’s sexual blaseness when confronted by the pain of Mrs. H - no matter how pathetically hysterical she is.
This world crashing in on her is compounded by the death of her loving father (a surprisingly soulful performance by Christian Slater). Yes, it is indeed refreshing to have a film about nymphomania devoid of Freudian answers. Her father brought to her the only peace she found throughout her stories by giving her a love for nature - a nice flip-side to the themes of Antichrist (there’s also a perhaps too on-the-nose reference to the beginning of that film to be found in the second volume).
It is after her father’s death that she finds her one constant back in her life, Jerome. Played by Shia LaBeouf as a sympathetic dufus of sorts, he is the one who vulgarly took Joe’s virginity and the one who ends up breaking down her wall against love. This being a Lars von Trier film, and as such there are no happy endings - even to a “Volume One” - it is here that the horrors of all horrors happens to Joe. She can’t come.
I should add here that it is indeed a shame that some areas of the world are not releasing both volumes of Nymphomaniac in the theaters simultaneously. Though it would seem the longest interruptions only last a month or so. It’s true that Volume One really is only half a movie - with a silly preview of things to come in Volume Two montage at the end. Though this does allow the provocateur in Lars von Trier to goose you one more time into thinking what you are about to see is something far more sinister than it actually is.
The second volume picks up immediately where the first left off and despite the hint that things may take a turn for the darker in the preview, the tone remains the same. What von Trier doesn’t do in Nymphomaniac is linger very long in any one event and again in Volume Two, there is that sly humor that is never too far away. Even that image used in press photos and the Volume Two preview of Gainsbourg, who does take over the role of Joe in this volume’s stories, writhing between two muscular black men turns into a comedy of errors more than anything else. His bait and switch is impeccable throughout.
Those expecting explicit titillation from Nymphomaniac - or some bleak endurance test - will be disappointed. Especially with this film, Lars von Trier joins the ranks of William Castle & Hitchcock in the mastery of manipulating the viewer before they even sit down to watch the film. So much more was written about the use of real sex in this film than was the case for Antichrist that you realize what the power of a good title can do for publicity. The real sex we do see in the film takes up probably only a couple minutes of the 4+ hours of the total running time and, unlike Antichrist, none of it feels gratuitous - it simply isn’t hiding anything.
The majority of the second half is Joe getting her groove back. She finds her drive being rekindled by K (impressively played by Tintin himself, Jamie Bell), a Dom who allows Joe to discover the power of submissiveness. Until this point she has only known the dominant power of her sexuality. This sexual liberation comes at a cost though, and ends up liberating her from her relationship with Jerome and their young child as well (this break-up between Joe and Jerome is the one scene that I felt LaBeouf really nailed). She’s learned a thing or two from K though, and cleverly puts it to use in a new career as a debt collector.
Her new boss, L (Willem Dafoe), suggests that she acquire a successor (pun possibly intended). It allows Joe to be the mother-figure she wasn’t able to for her child with Jerome. This includes the joys of being a teacher and the pains a mother feels when that child reaches the age of resentment. Which brings us just about to the point of how Joe ended up in that alleyway. I won’t spoil the film any further by giving that away - nor how the relationship between Joe and Seligman ends. Just keep in mind that this “Depression Trilogy” began as a response to the psychotherapy von Trier received during his bout and given Seligman’s name-sake, his fate is sealed.