Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin
Director: Lars Von Trier
“A book that does for masturbation what Moby Dick did for the whale,” Anthony Burgess once remarked of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Something similar might be said of Nymphomaniac in relation to your standard flesh flick, because Lars Von Trier’s controversial film takes the treatment of sexuality on screen to new and unexpected places. If it’s a porn movie, as Von Trier has cheerfully called it, it’s a deconstructed one, a cross between The Story of O and Tristram Shandy, Moll Flanders rewritten by Jorge Luis Borges. Now this 2-disc set brings together Vols 1 and 2 in an uncut edition, with 90 minutes of unseen footage. Be prepared to have your mind blown, your assumptions challenged and – on more than one occasion – the strength of your stomach tested. But also expect to be exhilarated and uplifted.
Vol 1 introduces us to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the good Samaritan who takes her home after he finds her lying bruised and battered in an alley. “It’s my own fault, I’m just a bad human being,” she announces, and proceeds to tell him the chequered story of her life, starting with her discovery that she was a nymphomaniac at the precocious age of 2 and detailing her many sexual discoveries and encounters (which we watch in flashback, with Young Joe ably played by Stacy Martin). Realizing that she is consumed with shame and sexual guilt, Seligman attempts to talk her back from her extreme self-loathing with a more liberal, less judgemental gloss on her confessions, and in so doing finds himself embarking on all manner of erudite digressions into questions of faith, mortality and the nature of sin.
The result feels, for much of the time, like a dialogue between body and mind, self and soul, and it’s a dialogue full of unexpected humour and whimsy, as when Seligman draws an unlikely comparison between Young Joe scouting for men on a packed train and the pastoral world of flying-fishing. The culmination of this is a sequence – involving music, voiceover and split-screen montages of unsimulated sex – in which the polyphony in a Bach organ piece is compared to the pleasure Joe gets from having multiple lovers. It’s not just ingenious, there’s also a gallantry and tenderness to it which touches all these naked, rutting bodies with poetry.
Von Trier demands of his actors a kind of non-actory acting, minimal of gesture and vocal inflexion, and within these limits Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin both do very well at imbuing Joe with a kind of essential innocence and childlike curiosity. Martin’s role is particularly difficult in that, with older Joe’s voiceover accompanying her actions, she might have seemed like little more than a puppet, a sex doll even. Instead she brings a dry, deadpan wit and an engaging mix of youthful cockiness and self-doubt to the young Joe as she explores her sexual powers. Meanwhile, as Seligman, Skarsgard does a fine job of injecting warmth, humanity and vulnerability into a part that could have come across as simply a narrative convenience.
Vol 2 details Joe’s tortured, failing relationship with the love of her life, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and her ever more crazed attempts at thrill-seeking. The (extremely graphic) comical highlight is an ill-fated three-way with two argumentative black men, but there’s also much bleakness and awkwardness as she goes through a 50 Shades of Grey period with a thin-lipped sadist played by Jamie Bell. Whereas the full-frontal nudity and explicit sex was handled with lightness and even grace in Vol 1, in Vol 2 the physical aspect of things becomes much more gruelling, with scenes of masochism and self-harm that will make you flinch and a sequence involving a self-administered abortion that is unsparingly confrontational.
More generally, Vol 2 feels less controlled and coherent than Vol 1, with some contrived and unconvincing twists. But even if some individual chapters in Joe’s life are weaker than others, the narrative as a whole has an undeniable cumulative power, a thumping weight that distinguishes it from 99 per cent of movies made nowadays. Drawing on everything that’s gone before, Joe’s last big speech feels thrillingly gripping, momentously important. Yes, there are many things you might want to take issue with – personally, I found the ending unnecessarily cynical and demeaning – but overall Nymphomaniac is one of those rare movies that leaves you feeling refreshed and excited about cinema as a medium. It’s brave and humane, and its combination of bold technique and unblinking frankness will give other filmmakers lots to ponder, much as studio-bound Hollywood did in the ’40s and ’50s when European directors left their stage sets and started filming the real world. 10/10
42-min of interviews with the cast. Gainbourg seems rather shy and defensive, but Stacy Martin bravely gets stuck in, chatting about the nitty-gritty of how porn doubles, digital FX and prosthetic vaginas were used to create the graphic sexual couplings on screen., and how the actors and the porn professionals would swap in and out of a scene tag team-fashion: “It’s weird that you shoot a scene and suddenly it becomes a porn set.” Skarsgard talks interestingly about Von Trier’s changing methodology, about how he had learned to let go of control to achieve a more spontaneous style. The funniest interview is with LeBeouf, who describes the worried reactions on the part of his entourage when he agreed to do the film and was immediately asked by Von Trier’s people for pictures of his penis. ~ 24 min Q&A with Skarsgard, Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark. Lots of enthusing about the creative license Von Trier allows his actors. Martin reveals that she and Gainsbourg didn’t talk at all about the portrayal of Joe, and Skarsgard describes how he and Gainbourg shot their scenes straight through, 90 pages of dialogue in two weeks. 7/10