NYMPHOMANIAC (Parts I and II) ***1/2 (out of five)
A solitary, mature gent (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a bruised and slightly bleeding woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alley at night. He takes her to his rather depressing flat, puts her in bed with a nice cuppa tea, and listens sympathetically and attentively, occasionally offering his own insights and queries, as she tells him her life story through the prism of her sex addiction, with particular emphasis on her relationship with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). So much of that sounds ludicrous, and much of the first twenty minutes of Nymphomaniac, Part I are (absolutely unintentionally) laugh-inducing. But then, somehow, like into the clutches of a very strange mini-series (the cinema release of Nymphomaniac, Parts 1 and 2 has been released as a single, nearly four hour, film), you get hooked, or at least sort of mesmerised. It’s episodic, vague and self-indulgent (perhaps pretentious?) but there’s no denying that it’s also original, committed and borne of a highly determined voice.
That’s the voice of Lars Von Trier, of course, Denmark’s (reasonably) self-proclaimed most original and provocative filmmaker, whose festival press-conference antics belie the skill he has as a filmmaker when he wishes to show it. Melancholia, his last film, was pretty excellent; AntiChrist, his film before that one, was pretty awful. He’s made at least one masterpiece: Breaking the Waves, and one true piece of totally provocative cinema, The Idiots. Father of Dogma, iconoclast, maverick, fool: he’s all of these, a hodgepodge of concepts, as is this film, sometimes to its great benefit, sometimes to its deficit, but always intriguing.
The film is set in a sort of Danish England or English Denmark (in Part Two we definitely see London, or at least English, streets), but it’s really set in the arthouse, or in Von Trier’s mind. Skarsgård’s apartment, and the alley in which Gainsbourg is found, are both obviously, unapologetically sets (though not to the extent of Dogville, when Von Trier took the artifice of film to its natural conclusion). Most of the characters speak with British accents, but with Gainsbourg and Skarsgård, you can always tell they’re not British, and Shia LaBoeuf’s accent, certainly unintentionally, is sometimes Australian, sometimes South African, and sometimes something to make any dialect coach gouge her eyes out.
I don’t know how much LaBeouf had to pay Von Trier to be in his film, but, accent aside, Von Trier gets the best work from him he’s ever done (and possibly the only good work of his other than for John Hillcoat in Lawless). Jerome is a complicated, slippery character, and LaBeouf’s dubious qualities – his utter rootlessness and seeming mystification at how the real world works – complement Jerome’s silver-spooned, baffled existence, a boy in a man-boy’s body, capable of all the physical things a man can do (the sex act being the big one here) while incapable of grasping even a fraction of its emotional and psychological complexities.
Uma Thurman plays in her natural American accent, and does some brilliant work in her own “Chapter” of Part One (the whole film – both parts – is subdivided into chapters). She gets to show elements of her emotional range that I literally can’t recall seeing since Dangerous Liaisons. Although her character is on a mission of vengeance, this is a world far away from Kill Bill, Volumes One and Two – although that resonance will not have escaped either Thurman or Von Trier, and may have even been why she was cast. The whole film is extremely conscious of its place within the world of cinema, and in Part Two in particular Von Trier goes full-bore into this meta-mode, visually referencing, at times shot for shot, Melancholia and AntiChrist, which, together with Nymphomaniac, make up his self-described “Depression Trilogy” (and if you watch all three in a row you’ll definitely feel pretty blue afterwards).
The cinematography is exquisite and, given the huge range of characters, the acting is excellent: naturalistic yet always aware of what the Von Trier Universe demands. Jaime Bell – little Billy Elliot himself – forever banishes that dancing coal-miner’s son from his palette with his character in Part Two. Extremely dark, “K” is a man who exists to gratify women with a very particular need. The entire film takes a leap here, and if “K” was badly cast or performed, the whole thing could have fallen brutally apart, but Bell comes through with shining colours, giving his depraved character an essence that could not have been on the page. Either expect him to get a lot of villain offers next – or to never work again. He’s terrifying, and not because of what he does, but because of why he does it – and since that is never stated, it’s all to do with Bell’s performance. Whatever sickening stew of backstory and fractured neuroses he had going on in his head, we can see it in his eyes, starkly contrasted with the barren whiteness of his grotesquely under-furnished lair. Did I mention he’s terrifying? Terrifying. Watch Billy Elliot and Nymphomaniac Part Two as a double feature and have your brain fried.
The other acting revelation of the film, and the real lead actor in Part One, is Stacy Martin, who plays Joe as a very young woman in the flashbacks (and thus has the vast majority of Part One’s screen time). Besides being totally acceptable as a young Gainsbourg, she’s just excellent. I think Von Trier must be a truly terrific director of actors, because he somehow gets them all on the same page – his page – and it’s a strange, difficult, at times demented, at times stodgy, and at all times elliptical – page. Martin gets the vibe in every one of her many, many scenes, and her inner life during the crucial sex scenes is every bit as layered and fractured as that we could feel during Michael Fassbender’s Shame sex scenes (watch that with this for an afternoon of sexual addiction movies, then go out and hang yourself).
Unfortunately, for the most part, the framing scenes between Skarsgård and Gainsbourg are interminable and ludicrous, sounding too literary, too pretentious and portentous, too written. Von Trier wrote the whole thing himself, and it’s strange how clunky this dialogue feels compared to some of the naturalistic banter of the flashbacks. Perhaps he allows some improvisation, some times. Since the whole movie is in flashback, our sense of suspense is muted; Joe is wounded, but, honestly, not very severely, and she certainly doesn’t seem at all traumatised or even mildly shaken. Skarsgård, after a couple of tiny shots on the alley set, is confined to one room for the whole film, and he and Gainsbourg do their best, but, seriously, in a four hour film, these are the scenes to use to go to the bathroom, or better yet, to the bar.
Despite the shamelessly provocative marketing, this is Von Triers’ least sensationalistic, most mature film since Dogville, and it is never titillating or “sexy”. Nymphomaniac is trying to say a lot, and along the way it achieves all sorts of brilliant notes. Some of the scenes are truly exceptional, mini-masterpieces; some of it is turgid. It’s far too long. I suspect, over the four hours, most people will fall asleep once or twice, to be awoken by the sounds of rooting, rutting, whipping or crying. Perhaps this is a good way to experience it, in a fractured dream (or nightmare) state. Really, it should have been placed into theatres in two parts, as its title intended, perhaps a month or six apart, as Tarantino did with Kill Bill’s two volumes. At four hours, it’s all too much. But at two by two, it’s totally worth taking in. That’s how I did it; I’m not sure I could have made it through the other way. Von Trier is promising a five and a half hour cut still to come. I’ll have moved on. Von Trier doesn’t move on, continuing to delve into his obsession – men and women and their union in sex and violence. He’s a one-theme director, and he’s absolutely, resolutely, and wonderfully one of a kind.