Friday, March 21, 2014

Film Review: Nymph()maniac

Writer/Director: Lars von Trier
Producer: Louise Vesth
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Michaël Pas, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier
Erotic European Art Film
Volume I: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Volume II: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Lars von Trier's latest film arrives with a lot of baggage. He's known to be a talented provocateur, as well as immensely polarizing. One of the few male directors who consistently writes meaty roles for women, he's nonetheless accused of misogyny. After receiving a Palme d'Or in 2000 for Dancer in the Dark, he returned in 2011 with an arguably greater film Melancholia. It was overshadowed after a press conference went off the rails when he told a personal story about how he grew up identifying as a Jew and only discovered when his mother was on her deathbed that his real father was her German boss. His facetious remarks about wanting to be a Jew only to discover he was a Nazi were grossly misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, with the result that he was declared "Persona non Grata" by the Festival de Cannes.

At that press conference, he joked that he planned to make an epic-length three-to-four hour long porn film as a follow-up. Well, that turned out not to be a joke, at least not entirely. While Nymph()maniac isn't exactly a porn film, it is highly erotic and sexual and it does indeed have a four-hour running time, conveniently divided into two parts for its current theatrical release.

A complete director's cut exists that is apparently even more explicit and runs five-and-a-half hours long. It's supposed to contain more graphic content, even though this version still has a lot of nudity (including things which may shock more delicate North American viewers, e.g. erect penises) and some harder content (performed by body doubles).

On its surface, Nymph()maniac tells a straightforward story about a woman, Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), describing her life story to a man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who cares for her after he finds her beaten in an alley. Joe is a self-described nymphomaniac, and her story carries her through the entire gamut of female sexuality. Seligman is her polar opposite, an asexual professorial type who intellectualizes everything she relates.

Some have argued that one or the other character is a signifier for von Trier himself. But it makes more sense to say that both are, and that they both reflect not only von Trier himself but the entire movie as a whole. In addition to being extreme sexual in nature, it also is a very intellectual and philosophical film that draws on a wealth of literature and art forms. It's like a T.S. Eliot poem strewn with allusions, references and footnotes – there's a lot going on and it's not possible to grasp all of its meaning in one pass. And that challenge is part of the pleasure.

One gets the sense that words, phrases and entire scenes resonate with layers of meaning, a kind of filmic double entendre. Even the title itself is not simply the word "nymphomaniac" but a division of the word into the two characteristics nymph and maniac, while the "o" is replaced with parentheses that can represent a vagina among other things. The film delves into classic mythology and literature, religion, botany, maths (esp. the Fibonacci sequence), music, and the arts.

The movie opens startlingly with German metal music by Rammstein, "Führe mich" ("Lead Me"). From there, it settles back mostly to the classics (esp. German composers such as Beethoven, Handel, Wagner and Bach) and occasionally veers to contemporary selections such as Talking Heads "Burning Down The House" and Gainsbourg herself singing "Hey Joe." The Bach music is taken from the suggestively titled The Little Organ Book (Orgelbüchlein).

All of this is delivered with a great deal of style and panache. The all-star cast delivers excellent performances for the most part, especially Uma Thurman in a scene-stealing tour de force. Von Trier himself outdoes himself by using everything at his disposal, incorporating a vast array of techniques. He references his own filmography, not only in story details such as a woman being given permission to find other lovers as in Breaking the Waves, but with visual flourishes too that recall the child on the balcony in the opening of Antichrist or the overhead shot of the bride laying in the field in Melancholia.

To top it off, the film is also hilarious. Yes, it is both highly sexually charged and deeply philosophical. But all of that is delivered with a generous helping of von Trier's oddball good humour.

Even in this edited version of the film, it is very apparent that Nymph()maniac is simply a masterpiece. It exudes a tremendous richness that while not always immediately graspable, it is clearly masterful and will reward repeated viewings. It will probably also function as something of a Rorschach test inasmuch as varying opinions will probably not reflect the film so much as the reviewers own preoccupations or state of mind. But I myself can't wait to see it again, especially in its unabridged and uncensored version.

Nymphomaniac Official Trailer from Zentropa on Vimeo.

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