Neither Porn nor Erotic: Lars Von Trier Excels in 'Nymphomaniac'

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Charlotte Gainsbourg, the star of Nymphomaniac, with Jamie Bell.
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Nymphomaniac Written and directed by Lars von Trier; with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier

Before saying what I think about Lars von Trier’s new film, “Nymphomaniac,” a word to readers who are planning to see it: If you saw the first part of the movie, found it interesting and not so off-putting that you never want to set foot in its cinematic terrain again, make sure to watch the second part as well.

I do not suggest this because the second part is necessary for understanding the movie. “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” is not like an episode in a television drama that ends in a mystery only the next episode will solve. Rather, as in Quentin Tarantino’s two-part “Kill Bill,” the second “volume” of von Trier’s movie not only expands on the first part but forms a dialectical relationship with it, and this relationship is the very heart of “Nymphomaniac.”

In the United States, volumes one and two were screened some months apart (as was also the case with Tarantino’s movie), and each part was reviewed upon its release as though it were a stand-alone picture.

In Israel and some other countries, by contrast, the two parts of “Nymphomaniac” are being screened in succession, and they can be watched with only a brief intermission between them, or on different days.

That is indeed the correct way to watch this film, whose two halves form one continuous and cohesive whole, and which I will therefore be treating in my review as a single two-part work (with each part broken down into four segments).

The movie’s name and the buzz surrounding it might cause some to conclude, mistakenly, that this is a work of cinematic eroticism that borders on the pornographic – or perhaps crosses that line altogether.

But “Nymphomaniac” is in no way erotic, and certainly not pornographic. There is humor in the movie, von Trier-style humor, which is biting and aggressive.

On the whole, however, “Nymphomaniac” is a dark, somber work not unlike some of the Danish director’s prominent early films focused on female characters: “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancing in the Dark” or – lest we forget – the all but unwatchable later work “Antichrist.”

Although “Nymphomaniac” is closer in quality to the director’s most celebrated films, it has a certain affinity to “Antichrist.” It, too, has a plot 
focused on the bond that forms between a woman and the man who takes care of her (in “Antichrist” it was the husband caring for his wife, who was grieving for the loss of her young son). In the English-speaking “Nymphomaniac,” which is set in England, the woman is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who also starred in “Antichrist”), who at the beginning of the first part is found battered and bleeding in an alley by an older man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He takes her to his home, and there, tucked into bed in a pair of men’s pajamas that make her look childlike and innocent, Joe begins (at Seligman’s request) to tell him about her life as a nymphomaniac who sometimes had sex with 10 men in a single day.

Joe and Seligman are opposites, and not merely by virtue of their gender. Seligman, who is of Jewish descent, describes himself as “asexual.” A virgin, he lives an ascetic life in an apartment that looks more like some space inside a library (or a monastery) than the home of a truly living person.

The bond he forms with Joe is one of confession, with Joe unfolding her story and Seligman encouraging her, with great patience and calm, to tell him of the torments that caused her to end up in his bed. From Seligman’s apartment, the 
movie thus embarks on a series of flashbacks showing us Joe’s story.

It is, however, the frame narrative, in which Joe spends a long night telling Seligman about her life, that gives “Nymphomaniac” its main heft and source of depth. The movie explores the art and practice of storytelling, with Joe as a kind of Scheherazade and Seligman the listener who drives her story and responds to it.

I won’t share here all the convoluted turns of Joe’s sexual path, leaving that for viewers to discover on their own. I will say that “Nymphomaniac” uses sex as a metaphor for life itself, the way we live it, the struggles we face, our ability or inability to come to terms with it and find forgiveness and salvation.

The metaphor is the right one, because it touches on passion, desire, satisfaction or its absence.

Most of von Trier’s prominent pictures have had an element of religious allegory to them, and this is also true of “Nymphomaniac,” which is unusually preoccupied with matters of sin and punishment.  

“Nymphomaniac” is an ambitious, complex work that pursues too many narratives; surprisingly, however, despite this overload the movie is admirably lucid.

Clearly, this is a problematic film that can give rise to extensive debate and disagreement, but that is hardly a limitation. On the contrary, even.

Lars von Trier, as a director, is problematic, and so are his movies. Not all of them are equally good – I’ve voiced my reservations about some of them in the past – and not everything in this particular picture works with the same kind of efficient directness. However, the director’s gifts are hard to question. The four hours I spent watching "Nymphomaniac” were riveting.

This is one of von Trier’s best films to date, a seeming summary of his oeuvre thus far. Above all, “Nymphomaniac” – unlike so many of the movies we see today – seems to be alive, a cinematic endeavor distilled from its creator’s brain and soul, which are at once fervent and clear.

The movie makes demands of us, forcing us to become involved, to react. While we as spectators remain passive before it, the film catalyzes our thoughts and emotions, which (at least symbolically) rescue us from this passivity and allow us to connect to the film’s very core.