Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nymphomaniac goes full Lars von Trier

I have a complicated relationship with Lars von Trier.  Melancholia was the first film of his that I watched back in 2011, and it's my favorite film of all time.  Since then I've seen Antichrist and Dogville, both of which failed to meet the towering expectations set by my introductory experience with him.  There's certainly much to appreciate in the former's gonzo audacity and the latter's ascetic sensibilities, but neither provided the visceral emotional experience that Melancholia did for me.  I can't make any final verdict on how I feel about him as a filmmaker since I still haven't seen his highest regarded films like Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, or The Five Obstructions, but I can say our interactions have been checkered so far.  Regardless, he's definitely one of the most exciting directors working right now, and even when I don't fully enjoy what he's doing, his films never fail to stir something within me.

With that in mind, I was always going to see Nymphomaniac -- less because all of the buzz surrounding its explicit nature, and more because it's a new film by Lars von Trier.  The four hour film is broken up into two parts, and Volume I introduces us to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who's found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) lying bloody on the ground in an alley.  He offers to give her shelter and in exchange, she tells him how she came to be in the position he found her in, a tale that chronicles her lifelong experience with nymphomania.  She breaks this story into tiny little chapters, ranging from discovering her condition as a little girl to embracing it as a young woman (played by Stacy Martin).  Together, Gainsbourg (who's quickly becoming my favorite actor), Martin, and von Trier develop Joe into a rich character whose insatiable lust just seems to eat its own tail and suck every aspect of herself into the void.  Nymphomania is just one symptom of her life, it's very clear that she's also severely depressed, unconsciously using sex as a temporary balm for her woes.

This may make the film seem like a bleak slog, but Volume I is often fun and playful.  The key to understanding and enjoying Lars von Trier is realizing that more often than not, he genuinely just wants you to laugh and have a good time.  He's got an odd sense of humor, so that's not always readily apparent, but it is in many parts of this first volume.  From all of the little insert shots of archival footage, kooky graphics that pop up on screen, and instructional diagrams that accompany Joe's stories, it's clear to see that von Trier is having a ball.  Volume I peaks in its third chapter, "Mrs. H," which is just a masterpiece of cringe comedy.

Nymphomaniac gained much of its pre-release fervor from the rampant sex that was promised in it, and while there's certainly copious amounts of it, it's fascinating to see how dispassionate most of it is in this volume.  Much of Joe's young life is filled with joyless sex, following up a first time that's quick and brutal with expressionless trysts with random strangers on the train.  The first sign of pleasure we see from her is in a montage with four different men, but it's revealed that her ecstasy is only a form of emotional manipulation, as she tells each of them that this specific encounter was the first orgasm she's ever had.  When there are finally true signs of sexual satisfaction from her, it has grave consequences.  Like many of Lars von Trier's films, Volume I is all about loneliness.  For Joe, sex is an act born out of lust and alienation, but only fuels more lust and alienation.  That this thing usually considered to be the ultimate form of intimacy only serves to isolate her more is one of the film's saddest ironies.

With these two films, von Trier is building up his own twisted version of a myth, a journey filled with symbols and coincidences and elements that recur in Joe's life.  In a way, Nymphomaniac is like his Kill Bill.  With both series, the first volume is playful and over-the-top while the second one is focused and stark.  They're essentially one cohesive story, broken up into two parts that are able to stand on their own stylistically and thematically.  Nymphomaniac's two volumes even have an Eastern and Western dichotomy, although it's more theological rather than structural.

And if Volume I is all about loneliness, then Volume II focuses on the punishment that comes as an ultimate response to that loneliness.  It's another one of von Trier's pet themes, his stories are full of characters punishing themselves and those around them, and Joe is no different.  The guilt she feels about how she's thrown away the rest of her life for the sake of her sexual appetite is essentially the root of why she's telling her story to Seligman -- it's an effort to have somebody else feel she's as terrible as she finds herself to be.  And when her self-harm isn't enough, she looks to be punished by others.  Her nymphomania manifests itself in her need to constantly up the stakes of her sexual experiences, searching for something more extreme when the last method will no longer suffice, and finding it in a man (Jamie Bell) who viciously beats her without any sex involved.  The cycle of punishment continues, as Joe eventually takes up a job that requires her to use her experience with sexual torture on others, and finding a protege to pass her techniques on to.

I mentioned earlier that Lars von Trier just wants you to laugh and have a good time, but his films wouldn't be as interesting if they were just about that.  Volume II proves that he also wants to make you think about the ideas he's presenting you with.  Some say that the ending is a cheap gag that retroactively soils the four hours that came before it, but the more it rattles around in my brain the more powerful it becomes.  Von Trier has said that all of his female protagonists are an extension of himself, and that idea really comes into focus at the end of this portion.  When you think about these two films as the conclusion of what he calls "The Depression Trilogy," then nymphomania is just an extension of depression in the same way that loss was in Antichrist and the end of the world was in Melancholia.  If Antichrist showed something that could begin a bout of depression, and much of Melancholia was about living with it, then Joe's decision to overcome her sexual desires is an effort to emerge from depression.  Resisting her urges in any way that she can is not too dissimilar to von Trier dealing with his depression in the only way that he can -- by making films about it.  Nymphomaniac posits that everybody suffering from some affliction is like the soul tree that Joe finds near the end of the film: barely upright, but standing nonetheless.

The movie aims to tell the story of one woman's unique life, and to do so it gets very operatic.  Luckily, that's the mode that von Trier best operates in.  Even if you aren't into the extreme places the story goes, there's always the terrific acting and arresting images.  (It's hard to believe that the man who started Dogme 95, a movement that pushed the limits of minimalist cinema, has now gone on to make three of the most gorgeous films of the last few years.)  Whatever you consider Lars von Trier to be -- provocateur, prankster, poet -- there's no doubt that Nymphomaniac is an ambitious opus from an auteur who always keeps audiences on their toes.

1 comment:

  1. Finally finished editing together the reactions to this. I know these are rough, Jefferson and Robyn backed out at the last minute on me and I'd already rented both on Amazon Prime at the time so...I went ahead and did them by myself. This resulted in having to cut a lot to make up for dead air and I had to trim a lot of plot summarizing that I ended up doing so that it didn't just become that (and these are already long enough as they are).

    But anyways, here they are.

    Volume I & An Intro to Lars Von Trier:

    Volume II: