Overview: A woman confesses her sexual history to a stranger. Magnolia Pictures; 2014; Unrated; Volume 1 = 145 Minutes, Volume II = 124 Minutes.
Right Off the Rails: The initial volume of Nymphomaniac opens with a woman left beaten in the street. Here, Joe is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (her younger self is played by Stacy Martin) A stranger, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), finds her and helps her back to his apartment where she candidly confesses her nymphomania and its history. Seligman absorbs the information with a wry, ornery smile. When Joe confesses having “discovered [her] cunt at age 2” and then moves from that moment into her more appropriate and erotic history with her sexual parts and power, Seligman leans forward and speaks in a sultry near-whisper to tell Joe… about fly fishing. What the fuck.
Let’s Be Honest: Anyone with Google search and closed window blinds can find their fill of genitalia in whatever state they would like—hard or flaccid penises, exposed vaginas, both sets brought together in clear penetration. It’s a click away. So, in the 21st Century, there is nothing aesthetically jarring or edgy about forcing these images into an audience’s line of sight. Attention-grabbing? Sure. Artistically valuable? Meh. Lars von Trier is smart as a whip. He knows this. Just as he knew that any comment that even suggestively sympathized with Hitler would create more publicity for Melancholia than any prize it might win at Cannes (Please note: it wouldn’t have won any; it was good, but not standout). Provocateurs have selfish intent. So when von Trier shows the montage of soft wieners, or an unexpected money shot, or full on-screen penetration (events I knew to expect from this movie because they had already been well-publicized from the film circuit buzz), he does not care if it shocks you in the immediate moment. He’s aiming for the attention-grabbing element so that he can make the audience take witness to a different message.
So Why Can’t He Be Direct With It: The earliest years of Joe’s life speed by quickly, and I found myself hopeful that maybe the film would hold this relatively expedient and efficient pace. No dice, you anxious dick diddlers. Fly fishing is just one of the elaborate figurative illustrations drawn in the conversation between Joe and her hyper-scholarly savior and host. They also provide long digressions on the music of Bach, taking walks, Edgar Allen Poe, and – after Joe describes her first sexual encounter as three thrusts from the front and five from behind – the Fibonacci sequence (with the numbers thrown up on the screen as von Trier treats us like we’re smart enough to maybe follow Schoolhouse Rock). The movie itself has its own implied metaphors. Well, they would be implied if the characters didn’t insist upon bluntly explaining them. “It’s actually the souls of the trees we see in the winter… Look how crooked they are.” Joe’s dad explains (Oh yeah, von Trier cast Christian Slater in the role of Joe’s British father) before taking up an agonizing stretch of screen time dying a slow choking death. At another point, Joe explains, “You know these supermarket doors that open or close by some kind of sensor? Now compare these doors to my cunt, and assign a very sensitive sensor.” (This bullshit metaphor is followed up with that penis montage I mentioned earlier). In case the over analogous exploration isn’t clicking, there are also stretches of slightly-more-accessible essay, both the verbal and visual sort. “Love is just lust with jealousy added. For every 100 crimes committed in the name of love, only one is committed in the name of sex,” Joe explains because she really wants you to know that she fucks for emotionless reasons. For heaven’s sake, she’s so emotionally stunted, she literally rolls dice to determine her treatment of her lovers! My god, are you pedestrian minds getting it yet?
Shia Lebeouf: He fits right in with this movie. By that I mean… he’s a dick.
Oh But If Only: In a scene near the middle of the first volume, a heartbroken wife (Uma Thurman) shows up with her husband (one of Joe’s partners) and her children. She introduces the family and asks if she can show the children the “whore bed” that has torn them apart. This scene, like all the others, lasts far longer than expected, but at least allows for a momentary reprieve from the constant contemplation masquerading as profundity. While it still feels trite and insincere, it’s far and away the best scene of Volume 1 because it marks the only moment where the audience is being spoken to eye-to-eye.
But Eh, Enough About People Who Aren’t Lars: Back to the pondering, the loose metaphors, and the endless chain of empty sexual encounters, until Joe recalls a statement whispered to her earlier in her life “The secret ingredient of sex is love.” She seems to attempt to embrace this as truth. But the volume ends with one last sex scene as Joe breaks down and cries, “I can’t feel anything. I can’t feel anything.” Ohhhhhh… Is that what this is all about?
Right Back Into It: The second volume starts with disheartened Joe and Jerôme (Shia Lebeouf) having sex while she recalls her first and last orgasm, in a field at age 12, a spontaneous surge doctors assured her was an epileptic seizure, which was coupled with a vision of two women. Joe describes the women to Seligman, who identifies them as the Whore of Babylon and Messalina, nymphomaniac wife of Roman Emperor Claudius. And of course that becomes a pretty long chit chat. Jesus. Here we go.
Even LESS Feeling: In this volume, Joe’s cunt goes completely numb. She seeks a fix for this, shoving spoons inside of her at a restaurant, using a translator to arrange a sexual encounter with two African men, and visiting an adorably bashful dominator named K (Jamie Bell). Though later in life, the empty sexual robotics give way to exploration of pleasure through plain. It’s the same empty exploits used in the first volume, with the same dull groans of existential anguish echoing off the same walls. There’s no real concern for Joe’s post-partem depression or failed marriage or complete indifference to her child. When she gives birth, Joe recalls the chiming sound of the spoons falling out from her dress when she left the restaurant after pulling her dirty trick, the umpteenth instant of sexuality being applied to measure the emotional chasm between Joe and everyone else, even her offspring.
Straight Up Bastardry: When Seligman shares an anecdote of a climber trapped by his own knot, Joe replies, “I think this is one of your weaker digressions.” That line of dialogue admits von Trier’s self-awareness in the most arrogant way imaginable. He’s winking as he bludgeons us with the boring cycle. Other clues provide evidence of the author’s cognizance of his self-indulgence, the most infuriating being his obvious recycling of images and themes from his own past movies. When Joe is encouraged by her husband to seek affection and pleasure outside of the marriage, we remember for a minute that that was the exact plot of Breaking the Waves. The baby walking toward a high ledge? That was just two movies ago in 2009’s Antichrist. Not content to talk endlessly and only about himself, von Trier has to create subtext to remind us that he is always the topic.
Take It As You Will: Maybe, in this my eighth straight hour spent with the film, my frustration is too realized to speak evenly about the quality of the singular product. This isn’t the worst film. It’s just the same damn movie I’ve seen from von Trier over and over: a single personal story of misery, loneliness, despair, but this time stretched for five hours and decorated with pornography (And it is pornography; if onscreen cumshots and penetration don’t define pornography, we’ll never have a definition.). But there are parts to admire. Namely, how all the movie’s pretension didn’t distract me from noticing the commitment and power of Gainsbourg’s performance. Ultimately, that just made me wish she would break away and try a director of more intellectually honest curiosity. Or maybe just a plain ol’ movie director. There’s a moment in Nymphomaniac, Volume II where eight men attempt to fix Joe’s broken down car. Here, I caught an exciting shimmer of potential. I asked myself: What if this is slowly becoming a film that displays the destructive potential of a real woman who personifies the willingly objectified slut from the collective Western male fantasy? But the film does not become that. Turns out, eight men working on her car was just another metaphor for her numb cunt, and probably also her numb heart. Or rather, to be clear, von Trier’s numb heart. This film has absolutely nothing valuable to say about human sexuality. It was never intended to.
Overall: Anytime you turn on a Lars von Trier movie, you’ve just opened your doors to the smartest and the saddest guy in the room—a man who likes to use his status as the first to discuss his status as the second. While his technique and approach are refined, confident, and certainly intelligent, his isn’t the most comfortable or noble intention. When you invite that person in the room, his/her insistence on misery becomes tiresome, unendurable. This is doubly true when the point is being emphasized with a montage of dicks. So, fittingly…