This review is broken, and there’s no fixing it. That’s because controversial art house contrarian Lars Von Trier’s latest opus became such a sprawling soirée of hardcore sex and provocation, it had to be bifurcated to be released. Instead of a five and a half hour long autobiographical account by a beaten woman from whom the film draws its provocative title, we are left with Part I and Part II. As a consequence, each part is being judged quite separately from one another, which is a bizarre and unfair straightjacket through which audiences, and indeed critics, must digest the film. Imagine if the first two hours of Lawrence of Arabia was strictly what first premiered with the final two hours available only a month later. Outrage! The film becomes an incomprehensible mess, and any dramatic structure is abandoned in favor of an abrupt and bizarre conclusion. Such is the case with Nymphomaniac Part I, and though where it was cut was likely the best option given the circumstances, a frustrating surge of incompleteness descended upon me and of course the film as Rammstein’s “Führe Mich” blared as the credits roll passed the screen. I protested the admittedly understandable decision at the time it was made, and I only review it now in keeping with the norm of others reviewing the film. It is entirely possible everything I feel now will be undone in the remaining two hours of the film, just as completing a sentence can inexorably alter its meaning. This is an especially obnoxious observation to make, since if Nymphomaniac Part I wasn’t cut off quite mid-sentence, it was close to doing so.
Nymphomaniac is made up by two forces that contextualize and tell the story. The first is Joe. She’s discovered in a back alley by a good Samaritan who promptly brings her back to his flat with the offer of tea. She’s a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac played with subdued sensitivity by Von Trier alumnus Charlotte Gainsbourg. She begins a novelistic account of her sexuality and life by declaring “I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old.” The film follows her sexual awakening from zero to 50, and the scenes during her younger years are played by newcomer Stacy Martin, who does a fine job. Joe hates herself. Like much of her story, what she feels should be included is implicitly linked to what pieces of trivia the second force behind offers. His name is Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), and by the film’s end he will have taught you everything you will need to know to start fly fishing, though he laments he doesn’t catch often. This is one of the film’s numerous in-jokes with itself, as Seligman constantly compares Joe’s increasing eroticism to his beloved sport of using funny feathered hooks to catch fish. You see, he’s a bachelor. -elbow nudge- He doesn’t catch often! If you think flirtations with comedic irony seem odd for an unforgiving drama about the darkness of the erotic, Von Trier proves you wrong. When it wants to be, Nymphomaniac is splendidly funny.
The relationship between Joe and Seligman is one of the most intriguing aspects of the picture, helped immensely by how strongly written Seligman is. His encyclopedic knowledge, accrued by a home full of books, does far more than merely tug at Joe’s memories. He’s full of trivia on Isaac Walton, Bach, and a hilarious and very possibly fictitious account on the Bolshevik Uprising and its relationship with cake forks. Skarsgård owns the role, and he’s the most easily enjoyed aspect of the film and, in many ways, the most important character.
On one hand he proposes the philosophy of Nymphomaniac as a film, questioning religion, sin, and social order. But, more instantly important to the movie, he tells the audience how they’re supposed to react to Joe. Or, rather, how Von Trier ideally hopes an audience would react, while realizing many won’t. The sympathetic and dryly funny Swede discovers perfectly logical explanations to relieve Joe, and perhaps the audience, of anguish. They aren’t so much rationalizations to excuse her morality but rather interpreting her behavior through an academic but still humanistic voice. Certainly, these tricks might not have worked on my grandmother, but, to the horror of Von Trier fans around the world, they probably would on average viewers.
Despite an amazingly offensive ad campaign featuring numerous trailers with copious amounts of cocks, vaginas, and sex-related fluids, Nymphomaniac is largely conventional. The worst you can say about it is that there’s a lot of sex. But in a world where many filmmakers push the boundaries on what is or isn’t acceptable, like Gaspar Noé’s flawed but unforgettable Enter the Void or last year’s beloved romance Blue is the Warmest Color, this neutered cut is hardly enough to get many parents screaming for the hills. The punk-rock elite of art house cinema that include the likes of Von Trier and fellow Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn go for love or hate. They wish to elicit a powerful response in any direction, and once they’ve done it, the job is done. When promoting the panned Only God Forgives after the hailed Drive, Refn frequently said the difference between love and hate is so slight he couldn’t care less. Von Trier’s filmography is famously polarizing, but it’s entirely possible merely to kind of like-- or kind of not like -- Nymphomaniac. It doesn’t have the maddening strength of Antichrist or Dancer in the Dark, and it’s easier to watch than his recent breakout hit Melancholia. This reaction has only been exasperated by the ads, and had I seen the film blind, I may not have thought so. But such is life in the trailer-filled age of 2014.
The other issue with Nymphomaniac is how it is at once too broad and too specific. Nymphomania and eroticism quickly can become metaphors for almost anything, since they surely do not stand for themselves. One quick interpretation is Joe acts as a proxy for Lars Von Trier himself, with her insatiable lust for sex the same as his lust for insurgent filmmaking. Joe even starts a rebellious club against love and the relationships caused by it, and in it they sing the incantation, “Mea vulva, mea maxima vulva.” The club even has a manifesto with which its members must comply, including the rule no member can sleep with the same person more than one time. Like Joe, Von Trier began a club with a dear friend (named Thomas Vinterberg) that was conceived out of rebellion and resentment to the status quo. And, also like Joe’s club, they adopted, or, depending on your perspective, mutilated, Christian phrases and words for their own ends. This was the famous Dogme 95 movement, which inspired influential films like The Celebration (first film to use digital recording) and The Idiots. Their own manifesto was called “The Vow of Chastity.” And, just as Joe’s crew couldn’t sleep with more than one person, neither Von Trier nor Vinterberg made more than one Dogme film.
There are many deeper comparisons to be made between Joe and Von Trier, but this is only one of many possibilities. As a consequence, despite all the film seemingly has to say, and it does say a lot (some obvious, some not), it never coalesces into a focused thesis. I wish this didn’t all sound so harsh since the truth is Nymphomaniac Part I was an incredibly compelling experience. Not to sound like an ad for a Swiss Army Knife, but it’s got it all- laughs, great performances, heart, wit, intelligence, fine film craft, suspense, richly developed themes, the worst attempt at an accent you’ve ever heard (courtesy of Shia LaBeouf), and it’s even got Uma Therman’s best performance maybe ever. It’s just that when you order a taco with extra spicy salsa, you’re disappointed if it’s merely mild. Bring on Part II!