Friday, April 25, 2014

Nymphomaniac Review

Directed by Lars von Trier
Released in 2014

I don’t know. I mean, what else I have seen by Lars von Trier (Melancholia, Dancer in the Dark) has also left me slack-jawed by the end. The Dane has a knack for translating his cruel, starless worldview into undeniably arresting cinema, both celestial and psychological in scope. But this is just something else. It’s not the inherent pornography of these images that leaves me at an impasse — take “Desire & Cinema” with Prof. Ellis Hanson, English, and your tolerance of, even appreciation for explicit art will grow and make you forever wiser. No, Von Trier attacks something close to home, for me at least: the act of criticism itself.

Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II, a four-hour sexual bildungsroman split in half to facilitate distribution and, in reality, make two times the money, straddles two different modes: Backwards-looking narrative and contemporary criticism of said narrative. The storyteller is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an intellectual, Stephen Dedalus-type, finds bloodied and incapacitated in an alleyway by his local convenience store. The alley’s vertical, recursive walls echo F.W. Murnau’s German Expressionism — that is, until von Trier rotates his camera some 270 degrees like Gaspar Noé and blasts Rammstein’s “Führe Mich” on the soundtrack. It is the first instance of bathos that totally undermines whatever impression you had been forming in your head to that point, and it sure ain’t the last.

Seligman brings Joe to his humble apartment, where he offers her tea and she tells him her life story. Her story starts at the beginning, with a now famous line, “I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old.” Joe narrates with as little emotion as you probably just read that sentence, so the word “irony” is applicable here, there, everywhere. Played by Stacy Martin in teenage flashbacks and Gainsbourg for most of the latter half, Joe covers a life’s worth, and then some, over four hours: Discovering beauty in nature with her father (Christian Slater, with a poor British accent); losing her virginity to an excitable older boy, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf, same); competing with her friend, while wearing “fuck-me-now” attire, in screwing a train’s worth of men, all for a bag of chocolate sweets; provoking the wrath of Uma Thurman (just phenomenal), playing the dumped wife of one of Joe’s most gullible partners; marrying Jerôme and giving birth to a child whom she does not love; searching for her lost orgasm through routine visits to a sadomasochist (Jamie Bell, sort of incredible here); dabbling in “debt collection,” a.k.a. organized crime run by a typically wraithlike Willem Dafoe; and, naturally, a lot more. 

The tone of the first volume is one of high comedy, where von Trier superimposes numbers and throws in split screen effects to alleviate awkwardness. The second volume, as the later plot summary only hints at, darkens and loses its voice as a result. The sex, meanwhile, is just there. You see close to everything, and sometimes actually everything, but von Trier does not bathe the intercourse in titillating lights or shroud it in I’m-Making-A-Statement darkness. It’s just sex. Moving on.

Throughout Joe’s retelling, Seligman interjects to draw analogies from the literature, music and history he loves. We are supposed to laugh at the extremity and banality of his similes, which range from prowling as fly-fishing and polygamous sex as a Bach fugue. Seligman does not know what to do with Joe and her insatiable sexuality but see her as another great text, to be studied and compared with. He does what a critic is supposed to do, except he extrapolates a bit too much, drawing connections too far removed from Joe’s experience, with which he cannot relate. Seligman hits gold now and then, like when he rebukes Joe’s self-labeling as a sinner when she also proudly disavows religion; in turn, Joe resolves, through minute, Tarantino-esque dialogue, his elitist thought process regarding how one clips their fingernails. Seligman does not judge her and even praises how she has, her entire life, retained her agency — which is true, in that no matter how much you dislike Joe by the end of this film, you must admire von Trier’s unorthodox commitment to female empowerment and, it must be said, some broad tenets of feminism.

Except at the end, when von Trier blows off the head of his own movie. I will not spoil it, but I will say it is outrageously cynical. It negates the film’s thematic momentum in its embrace of nihilism. It is too much. Or, perhaps, von Trier wants to remind us that the world of Nymphomaniac is still a text, and to take anything that is said, through Joe’s narration, her flashbacks, Seligman’s analogies or the very composition of the projected image, as a vehicle not for spoon-fed lessons but some higher, figurative truth.

What that truth is, I have no clue. Is von Trier just raising a middle finger to the critics — many of whom championed his work, of course — under some guise of deconstructionism, settling on a thesis along the lines of that immortal quote from The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons”? Given the way Joe ruins families and seeks out black men for sex, only to call them “Negros,” this throwing-hands-up-in-the-air tactic may be the most fitting way to critique Nymphomaniac. In that, these characters are above critique. Not a very comforting verdict, in my view, but clearly von Trier believes it. His films, and especially this one, must only, truly make sense to him. God help him.

Final Verdict:
I don't know. Let's say 2.5 Stars out of 5 — right down the middle.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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