Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II

March 29, 2014
Charlotte Gainsbourg in 'Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II' (2013)
Charlotte Gainsbourg in 'Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II' (2013)

At a running time of four hours, Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II, is one of the longest films to get a theatrical release in Australia this year. Is it one film or two? Perhaps there are actually three. The director’s cut which premiered in Berlin totals five and half hours, although only the four-hour version is being screened internationally. Presumably the extra hour-and-a-half will turn up on DVD.

This may sound like the most severe editing job since Joe Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), which came down from ten hours to three, by brutal stages. With Nymphomaniac we are assured that “technically, the changes in the abridged version consist of the editing out of the most explict close-ups of genitals.” This is astonishing, as not even the wildest, gung-ho porn film would devote a solid 90 minutes to close-ups of genitalia.

It’s the greatest genital fixation in the history of cinema, and who else would make such a movie but Lars Von Trier, the maverick Danish director who never stops surprising audiences with his invention and ambition. Von Trier’s previous effort, Melancholia (2011), lived up to its billing as “a beautiful film about the end of the world.” At its debut in Cannes the director sprung another surprise by getting himself expelled for making jokes about the Nazis. Good one, Lars.

Despite the cuts, Nymphomaniac remains a highly explicit movie, with enough genitalia to satisfy most viewers’ voyeuristic urges. If it’s not exactly sexy that’s because the sex is treated as a quasi-industrial process with the protagonist relating how she would orchestrate seven, eight or even ten carnal encounters a day. It’s also a wordy, philosophical film filled with digressions and intellectual speculation. The dialogue is by turns engrossing and frustrating, intriguing and pretentious – but it sustains interest for the entire four hours.

Von Trier is a filmmaker who always seems to have a theoretical angle to explore. His early movies, made under the aegis of the Dogme manifesto, were put together according to a set of self-imposed rules. Yet even in the post-Dogme era, he tends to impose a clear structuring principle on his features. In Nymphomaniac the ruling trope is ‘the picaresque’ – a tale of a clever, roguish adventurer told in a series of episodes. Think, for instance, of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, or Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.

As in a typical picaresque novel, the film unfolds as one long narrative performed in a single night, with each story presented as a chapter in the heroine’s autobiography. It begins with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a solitary bachelor, finding Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in a pool of blood in a dark alley. She doesn’t want the police or an ambulance, so he takes her home for a cup of tea. While lying in bed recovering from her bruises, she tells her rescuer the story of her life.

Like Moll Flanders, who was Twelve Year a Whore, Five Times a Wife, etc, Joe’s story sees her bouncing from one amorous encounter to another. The difference is that Joe is not motivated by economic necessity but by sheer unremitting lust. She wants to have sex all the time, and for the most part is happy with this arrangement, even though it causes havoc in the work place and in the private lives of her partners.

She tells of her first orgasm at the age of twelve, accompanied by a vision of Messalina and the Whore of Babylon. She details her first sexual encounter, with a boy named Jerome (Shia LaBoeuf), who will turn up at regular intervals in her story. One episode relates how she and a girlfriend competed to see how many men they could have sex with on a train journey. She joins with a band of teenage girls called The Little Flock, dedicated to the pursuit of sex and the destruction of love. Their motto is “Me vulva, mea maxima vulva.”

Selgman turns out to be a sympathetic listener who finds Joe’s tale “very pleasurable and humorous”. Between each episode he adds his own thoughts, covering topics such as fly fishing, Fibonacci numbers, the music of Bach and the Bolsheviks’ attitude to the cake fork. Joe is no less fond of symbols and metaphors. She intersperses the stories of her sex life with discussions of various trees.

As part of her confessional narrative Joe shares her thoughts about the nature of sin and of love. She contends that “love is just lust with jealousy added.”

“For every hundred crimes committed in the name of love,” she says, “only one is committed in the name of sex.” Her problem is not her need for sex, it’s the fact that she found herself falling in love with Jerome when she met him again in later life. Like all addicts she craves ever stronger sensations, becoming involved with a sadist in Volume II, who goes about his work with military efficiency.

There’s something ridiculous and stilted about Joe’s philosophising and Seligman’s pedantry, but it never becomes tedious. Buried in the midst of this long, rambling discussion there is a key to the director’s own psychosexual obsessions, but it would take a lot of unravelling to find the truth.

It’s obvious that most viewers will be attracted by the sex scenes rather than the seminar, but Von Trier – a moralist after all – doesn’t allow us to have one without the other. The endless bouts of intercourse, which require an extraordinary commitment from Stacy Martin as the young Joe, and Gainsbourg as the mature version, were reputedly filmed using CGI technology that enabled parts of other bodies to be superimposed on the actors’ own genitals. Like love itself, it’s a very realistic illusion.

Nymphomaniac Volume I & II
Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium, rated R18+
(110 + 130 mins)
Written & directed by Lars Von Trier; starring Charlotte Gainsbough, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBoeuf, Uma Thurman, Jamie Bell, Mia Goth, Willem Dafoe

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 29 March, 2014.

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Related Posts:
Melancholia, Cleopatra