3 + 5 = ? (sorry about that)
Before we get down to this elegant, elegiac story about fishing, let’s get one key question out of the way: why in God’s name do they pay with British pounds in this film? Is this Blackpool? Not some dreary, forsaken Vontrierland on the outskirts of Scandinavia but goddamned Blackpool? Yes, I know, fuck geography, the story is supposed to be universal and they could as well pay with Mongolian Tugriks. But still. Those sad curtains on train windows made me sad.
I’ve always had an issue with Lars von Trier and his freewheeling way of manipulating emotions. From Breaking The Waves to Antichrist, it has always felt like cheating. His subtlety is shallow and humourless, and you don’t prove your point by showing a mentally deficient girl wanking off salacious jerks on bleak Scottish buses. Well, apparently you do, but then it feels like cheap art.
So where does that leave Nymphomaniac? Von Trier’s very own, all-out, sexed-up Inland Empire? Lasting four hours, with unsimulated scenes featuring professional porn actors? With graphic perversions and every kind of orgasm imaginable (you’ve seen the infamous poster)? With sex addiction breathing at you from every inch of your screen? Well, let me put it like this: Nymphomaniac is Lars von Trier’s greatest achievement. (Sic!) There’s precious little to enjoy here, and after four straight hours I looked like a humped ghost, but Jesus Christ – sometimes when you are outrageous all you have to do to succeed is become unconditionally, uncompromisingly outrageous.
Look no further.
Was it Gore Vidal who said that the worst thing about watching pornography is that you might actually like it?.. With von Trier’s latest, you are never in danger. Nymphomaniac is some of the unsexiest sex I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s creepy, freaky, sticky, disgusting. You would have more chances with a John Updike novel. But can you say it is excessive? Can you say Lars von Trier went too far? Hell no, and that is his outrageous triumph. So don’t halve the experience, watch the whole thing in one sitting – if at all. It’s not rewarding, it’s overwhelming.
While not exactly linear, the story is very straightforward and easy to follow. “I discovered my cunt when I was two years old”, says Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg is a class act) to an old man who rescued her bruised and beaten in the street, and off we go. The man, a well-read virgin and a charming bachelor, is played by Stellan Skarsgård (who else?), and he is there to listen, dissect and analyse each section of her story via fishing, insects and maths. It’s both preposterous and rather wonderful, and adds a touch of lightness to the depressing proceedings. Quite inexplicably, Nymphomaniac can occasionally be rather entertaining (von Trier actually has a sense of humour, in a film about sex), but that’s until the second part kicks in and things become a little... heavy.
Shia LaBeouf (Joe’s one ‘love’) is surprisingly tolerable, Stacy Martin (young Joe) is jeune et jolie and Jamie Bell (K, a sadist Joe visits for violent whipping sessions) is brilliantly nondescript. The acting is superb, but the most memorable performance award has to go to Uma Thurman. She shows up in one bizarre, farcically tragic scene (which I will not give away) and drives you from laughter to tears with insane ease. I wish von Trier did more things of that upbeat nature, because frankly the lengthy hospital scene was sickening and dull.
Overall, the story covers every aspect of nymphomania that von Trier’s feverish imagination could summon, from premature stimulation to ‘fuck-me-now’ clothes to alphabetical lovers to playing Bach’s symphonies during cunninglingus. Plus, the visual imagery is way beyond suggestive and the foley artist must have been having a blast. Nymphomaniac is grotesque and gratuitous, but it is filled with neat, clever sequences (the train section is a high point), thoughts (‘secret ingredient to sex is love’) and ideas (the one about cutting fingernails is a quirky gem). And don’t even get me started on vaginas being compared to automatic doors. Bloody hell, Lars.
The ending was good, easily his best since Dogville. The sort of thing you half-expect and still find confusing, bewildering, completely out of order.
If you choose not to watch Nymphomaniac at all, good for you. If you watch it once, that is also fine. That’s your decision. However, if you have actually enjoyed the experience once and wish to watch it again, you must be, openly or secretly, no one else but this film’s subject matter. By which I of course mean a strange fish.