Published Jul 08, 2014Lars Von Trier is the art-house equivalent of Michael Bay. Brash, stylish and as reviled as he is revered, the elevator pitch for his latest film — "Von Trier makes a film about a sex addict" — is, for a certain type of film fan, a magnet for funding and ticket sales the same way a slow-mo, 360-degree tracking shot is for studio execs and megaplex audiences.
The sex addict in question is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is found beaten in a back alley by the frumpy and bookish Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). He takes the battered woman back to his apartment after she wards off offers to call the police or paramedics. There Joe insists that she deserved her fate; Seligman disagrees, which prompts Joe to recount her life as a self-described nymphomaniac. Moving chapter by chapter, she recounts her sexual awakening as a child, teenage sexual promiscuity and her descent into sexual deviancy. Seligman remains unmoved throughout; a self-described asexual virgin, he delights in finding literary analogs for Joe's compulsions.
The majority of her encounters are fleeting, physical affairs with the exception of Jerome (Shia LeBoeuf) with whom she falls in love and has a child. Once entrenched in the relationship however, she finds herself unable to orgasm from traditional sex and masturbation. With Jerome's begrudging consent, her quest for sexual satisfaction leads her to darker and increasingly more disturbing places.
Much of the conversation of Nymphomaniac has focused on scenes of sex and nudity. They are graphic but not particularly titillating; in your face, but not glorified. And while Von Trier puts everything (and I mean everything) on the screen in that realm, too often he relies on exposition, rather than images, to move the film's story, ignoring the old adage show don't tell.
Then there are the divided films; Volume I centres on the buildup to Joe's relationship with Jerome, while Volume II follows her dark path to that alley. Taken on their own, the films are unbalanced, with Volume I appearing to be the better movie — Uma Thurman's brief appearance in that edition has rightly been highlighted as one of the year's best supporting performances — and its tone is much lighter, bordering on farce at times. Taken as a whole, as they're presented here (you can choose which one to watch from the starting menu), Volume II is the more satisfying experience, the culmination of Volume I's long buildup.
All of this of course, begs the question, "Why?" Why did Von Trier make a four-hour explicit exploration of one woman's sexuality? (Somewhere, unbelievably, there exists a five-and-a-half hour cut.) Seligman's observation, that were she a man, many of Joe's actions would be brushed off as nothing more than a restless spirit, suggests Von Trier wants to point out the double standard that surrounds female sexuality. Yet in the film's final scene he seems to suggest that no amount of education, sympathy or emotional detachment will prevent men from turning women into sexual objects for their own use, rendering the rest of the film somewhat redundant.
Is this what Von Trier truly believes? Or is it simply the director trolling his audience? And if so, has the filmmaker's outsized personality finally eclipsed his art? Regardless of the answer, Von Trier has once again made a singular film that leaves viewers with far more questions than answers. Maybe that is the ultimate point.