By: Tim Cogshell
It will be noted long after this review is filed deep in the bowels of some ancient digital archive of dead film critics that Lars von Trier was among the most controversial and brilliant filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries. This would not be a currently agreed-upon assessment of the filmmaker; nevertheless, Lars von Trier is an actual genius, as opposed to the myriad filmmakers called genius who are actually just clever.
It should also be noted that I’ve been saying this about von Trier since the first of his Golden Heart films, Breaking the Waves, provoked audiences at Cannes nearly two decades ago. It’s a seminal von Trier movie that marked the initial international exposure of an artist whose work has been controversial for any number of reasons over the years — some related to the films themselves, others to the filmmaker himself. Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is von Trier’s current incendiary device and it will have much the same effect as every feature he has made since Breaking the Waves; each one a little nugget of genius, which is true whether or not I personally liked them.
As it happens, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I I like very much. Of course, in addition to being an actual genius Lars von Trier can also be something of an idiot, which, ironically, is the title of one of his more intriguing films: The Idiots(1998), the second installment in his Golden Heart Trilogy. But von Trier has been called worse, including a “woman-hating sadist” by Dancer in the Dark leading lady Björk, who swore off films after working with him on the award-winning musical — the third film in the Golden Heart series and his most piercing to date. The final scene is still nearly unbearable.
Von Trier has also had some interesting things to say about Nazis that were both idiotic and mostly taken out of context — and without consideration for his infamous propensity for saying provocative and sometimes just plain dumb things. I called him a “subversive show-off” some years ago in a capsule review of The Five Obstructions, which he directed with noted (and equally scandalous) Danish director/poet Jørgen Leth. It’s a lovely experimental film informed by Leth’s 1967 experimental short The Perfect Human.
Which reminds one that, like Leth and his other principal influences, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Alejandro Jodorowsky, Lars von Trier is also an experimental filmmaker. Certainly, his theatrical features have been fundamentally conceived as experiments in aspects of the cinematic storytelling process, from the self-imposed austerity of Dogme95 to the chalk outlines and imaginary sets of his The USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy, which includes Dogville (starring Nicole Kidman in a career performance), Manderlay, and the as yet unproduced Washington. Nymphomaniac: Vol. I and Vol. II are also experiments, and Vol. I, at least, proves again my thesis on the filmmaker: Lars von Trier is a subversive show-off, an actual genius, and an idiot. Not necessarily in that order.
The two Nymphomaniac films were originally conceived as one four-hour movie to be screened as such. Together they make up the third film in von Trier’s Depression series, which includes Antichrist and Melancholia. Together, these films are the “mad scientist” of cinema’s grandest experiments yet. Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is by far the funniest, starkest, least repellent, and truest to human nature of these intriguing experiments in filmmaking.
The film revolves around a series of stories told by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) about her childhood and young-adult exploits as a self-described nymphomaniac. In Vol. I, the pubescent and young-adult Joe is played with staggering daring in a debut performance by Stacy Martin — an indescribable beauty who is meant to be exactly that. Her empty doe-eyed stare belies a knowing that the young actress can turn on like a switch; and suddenly, like her many, many conquests in the film, you are the one who feels seduced, used, and discarded. What Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is not is remotely shocking; unless ordinary human sexual inclinations at any stage of life shocks. Nor is it offensive; unless the natural processes of nature (vegetable and animal) offend. Additionally, its ideas are not profound — or meant to be so — though they are not the fodder of ordinary conversation either, even among friends.
Not being shocking or offensive — or profound — isn’t what makes Nymphomaniac a film that is “not bad.” Indeed, these are among the reasons it’s so damn good. If Nymphomaniac truly shocked or offended it would be open to legitimate hostility towards its images, which are graphic in their depiction of nudity and sexual acts — the latter simulated. If it reached for the profound, it would be mocked by intellectual snobs who have all “been there and done that.” Instead, its ideas are simple — human behavior-based and communicated with words and pictures in Lars von Trier’s particular range of styles and visual constructions. In fact, the film is about what it says it’s about: a girl who discovers her body, her sensuality, and who really likes to fuck — and so does — and how that might play out in a world that doesn’t like girls who like to fuck — and do. And of course, Nymphomaniac is also about love.
Depressing, possibly. But only if you care about the rules, which you needn’t — that too is what Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is about. We shouldn’t pay too much attention to the rules of sexual propriety or worry too much about the consequences of breaking them because in the end we’re all screwed anyway.
In preface to seeing Nymphomaniac: Vol. I and Vol. II — or any Lars von Trier film for that matter — there are a couple of things one should consider. First, Lars von Trier, like Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg before him, is a fake “von.” They all added the preposition to their surnames to add a measure of nobility — and theatricality — to their personal presentations. Von Trier, in fact, still adds a measure of theatricality to everything, mostly for show. Which is to say the very real-looking sex scenes in the Nymphomaniac movies are about as real as the “von” in von Trier. It would be silly to get upset about them, but then again von Trier would say it’d also be silly to get upset about them even if they had been real.
Lastly, Lars von Trier has said that all of his films are intended to irritate his mother, a free-thinking communist nudist who did not believe in rules and didn’t follow them. Mrs. Trier had an affair with her boss, a German fellow, who it turns out is von Trier’s biological father — a fact that he did not find out until his mother was on her deathbed. This does not imply a case of nymphomania on mom’s part, but it does reinforce the idea that von Trier is trained by both nature and nurture to explore uncharted territories and not to conform. Given von Trier’s ironist inclinations, it’s difficult to discern whether his attempts at irritating his mom are meant to please or displease. One suspects the director would likely take pleasure either way.
Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog/). Twenty years of his reviews are archived at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/