Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac is everything you think — and maybe fear — it will be. And yet, by the end, I wasn't particularly moved, repulsed, nor largely affected. I left the theatre almost as numb as the main character was throughout the film.
Let me be clear: I am not a film critic. As an arts reporter, I watch a fair share of movies and might have a slightly more critical eye than most because of that. But I'm not going to talk about lighting, discuss how Nymphomaniac is a deep, depraved look into the disturbing imagination of Danish filmmaker von Trier nor share quotes from the movie to propose how they're metaphors for loneliness and apathy.
I will, however, share my thoughts as an average movie-goer and try to help you decide whether to buy a ticket for this film. First tip: whatever you do, don't choose it for a first date — or even a third. It will just be awkward.
Sophie Kennedy Clark (left) and Stacy Martin appear in an early scene from Nymphomaniac. (Christian Geisnaes/Mongrel Media)
Nymphomaniac revolves around a woman named Joe. In the beginning, we find her bruised and beaten in an alleyway, left for dead in the dark. Along comes Seligman, a middle-aged stranger, who takes her to his home to recover after she refuses to go to a hospital.
At Seligman's home, under the covers with a cup of tea, Joe begins her "bed-time" story. Remember those scenes in The Princess Bride when sweet little Fred Savage interrupts his grandfather's story to ask questions or demand he skip the mushy stuff? This is the polar opposite of that.
Joe uses objects in the room — a fishing fly hanging on the wall, a pastry brought in by her caretaker, a gun-shaped wallpaper stain — to describe different chapters of her life and to explain how she ended up so battered. It's all quite a stretch. Joe makes it clear she has told the story to other men before, which makes the tale seem less dramatic.
The woman portraying the young Joe is newcomer Stacy Martin, a model-turned-actor. I'm not sure if this was the wisest choice for her first film — we'll see if she works again. The older Joe (who tells the story) is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who has also starred in von Trier's Melancholia and Antichrist. Many other familiar faces pop into the film as well.
When we learn of Joe's sexual awakening as a child, her father is played by '80s star Christian Slater — odd casting considering he hasn't aged much and looks more like an older brother. I spent most of the time trying to identify his sometimes there, sometimes not, accent.
The father is a loving and nurturing parent, and though Joe's mother is more removed and unkind, this section never explains the origin of Joe's lack of conscience or boundaries: it sort of just exists. Perhaps that's the point — that addiction doesn't always have an explanation — although I don't quite buy that in the film.
Shia LaBeouf (who shot this movie about a year and a half before his recent, odd, real-life antics) portrays young Joe's main love/lust interest. His accent is also weird.
Shia LaBeouf plays one of many lovers for Stacy Martin's Joe in Nymphomaniac. (Christian Geisnaes/Mongrel Media)
Uma Thurman plays a mother of three and wife of one of Joe's lovers. She steals the one scene she's in and then, sadly, she leaves, never to return. I couldn't help but think I'd rather have watched a film about her character's life, as Thurman was good at making the audience laugh and cringe at the same time.
Speaking of cringing, Nymphomaniac's graphic sex scenes (and yes, there are a lot of them) became so mechanical after awhile that I became desensitized to them quite quickly. It became apparent when, after the first hour, I found myself checking my phone the minute someone's clothing dropped (Note: I was attending a press screening, where checking emails is not frowned upon).
From shocking to mundane
What seems shocking at the start of Nymphomaniac borders on mundane by the midway point. I suppose that was part of the goal: to remove the romanticized notions of sex we see in most films and present the act in a raw, unmanipulated way.
When the shock value wears off, you're actually left with a pretty dull film.
I did enjoy the interesting mix of sound. There are extremely quiet moments back-to-back with sudden bouts of loud metal music. It was a unique device that snaps you back into reality or further into a disturbing memory. At the very least, von Trier is a filmmaker who pushes boundaries, which art is meant to do.
Still, my basic problem with Nymphomaniac (besides its dullness) is this: while it's clear that Joe continually tries but can't fix the emptiness inside her, you just never like her. Not even a little bit.
Uma Thurman, seen at left, is utterly memorable in her one scene in Nymphomaniac. (Christian Geisnaes/Mongrel Media)
I get that the film is supposed to glimpse into a life incomprehensible to most of us, that we are not meant to relate to her. But nothing in me wanted to know more about her — I didn't empathize. And to me, that was disappointing. Complex TV characters like Dexter Morgan (Dexter) and Walter White (Breaking Bad) have proven that anti-heroes can be just as intriguing as do-gooders, as long as they have some sort of redeeming quality.
With Nymphomaniac's Joe, I didn't see any. Once you realize this, you begin to wonder just why you're spending four-and-a-half hours watching (I watched a full version with an intermission midway, though some cinemas are dividing the film and screening the halves separately).
For me, an interesting story emerged only after the movie ended. Nymphomaniac's "unsimulated" sex scenes looked so real that, naturally, I was inclined to delve further. Did the actors, um, really do it? It turns out they didn't. Von Trier used a mix of prosthetics and porn stars were also involved as body doubles. They performed the sex scenes and the actors' bodies were somehow superimposed afterward. Weird, I know.
Actress Charlotte Gainsbourg portrays the present-day Joe in Nymphomaniac. She has previously starred in Lars von Trier's Antichrist and Melancholia as well. (Christian Geisnaes/Mongrel Media)
Anyone even slightly familiar with von Trier likely knows he suffers from phobias, depression and a serious case of verbal diarrhea (part of the reason he no longer gives media interviews). He had an unconventional upbringing: his parents didn't really believe in setting rules for children and their idea of a childhood holiday was visiting a nudist camp.
Nymphomaniac is considered part of a movie trilogy (along with Antichrist and Melancholia) that reflects his own depression and grief. Meanwhile, his critics have said he does nothing more than make porn with stylized storylines.
Von Trier is either incredibly liberated or incredibly repressed. I'm still waiting for the man to make a film more directly about his own life to explore exactly which one he is.
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