The reviews are in and if there’s one thing they all seem to agree on, it’s that with "Nymphomaniac," there’s a helluva lot to potentially discuss. So let’s dig a little deeper, get a little bit more esoteric and eccentric and talk about some of the influences that von Trier has drawn on in his latest opus, which opens in Denmark on Christmas Day ahead of its 2014 U.S. release.
This article contains spoilers. But since a virgin experience of "Nymphomaniac" is practically impossible for anyone who’s seen the posters, trailers or teaser scenes (or indeed any other work previously produced or directed by von Trier) -- AND since this is something of his magnum opus -- we urge you to read on. Our earlier, more classically formatted review is here.
Chapter 1. Ancestors
Although he’s 57 years old, the term enfant terrible couldn’t be more fitting for Danish auteur and provocateur Lars von Trier, who seems to find something akin to child-like glee in doing exactly what he wants, come hell or high water.
"Nymphomaniac" is his latest and most singular work, a two-part film that combines explicit sexual content and intellectual digressions in the story of the titular protagonist, whose real name is Joe. She's obsessed with sex and gets very scared indeed when love might get in the way of enjoying the purely physical pleasures of intercourse and all its various permutations.
Von Trier was inspired to make "Nymphomaniac" after reading Marcel Proust's monumental “In Search of Lost Time,” not coincidentally a work in seven volumes, exactly one less than the eight chapters in which von Trier has divided his work – just to make sure it’s clear that he's trying to outdo Proust here.
Questions of sex and sexuality run through both works but are not the main focus of either. Both are also unusually lengthy for their form, with von Trier's version coming in at a reported 330 minutes, though the version released first, in two parts, comes in at a total of 240 minutes (or exactly four hours).
It's not exactly a spoiler to note that the main male part in "Nymphomaniac," the person who poses the threat of falling in love with Joe or being loved by her goes by the very French name of Jerôme — and that the child Joe and Jerôme will have together, the proof of their love, is called Marcel, also the first name of a certain French novelist.
That said, the work that first came to mind for this critic after having seen the four-hour “Nymphomaniac” is not Proust but a much earlier example of French literature: "Essais" by Renaissance writer Michel de Montagne. Stretching across three books and 107 chapters, "Essais" is also not for the faint of heart; Montagne is as fond of digressions as Proust and von Trier in "Nymphomaniac."
What the work of de Montagne, Proust and now von Trier have in common is that they reject what they see as an artificial division between the sciences and the objective truth on the one hand and emotion and perception on the other. Every experience, object and thing is filtered through the personality of each person experiencing it and is thus unique and different even for two people essentially experiencing the same thing. I don't think it was necessarily von Trier’s idea to make a feature that could function as an apologia for film criticism (or art criticism in general) but in a way he has. The beauty of film criticism is, of course, that opinions may (and should) vary; indeed, Variety's Peter Debruge seems to suggest the film's actually against film critics.
Chapter 2: Mixed Parentage
Joe, the nymphomaniac of the title, is not so much played as incarnated by the director’s latest muse, Charlotte Gainsbourg, also the lead of "Antichrist" and one of the two female leads, besides Kirstin Dunst, of "Melancholia." Always a fearless performer, the 42-year-old daughter of the late French singer and provocateur Serge Gainsbourg and British actress and singer Jane Birkin seems like a perfect fit for von Trier, who’s at least as boundary-pushing as Gainsbourg’s father (the breathy hit song "Je t’aime moi non plus" is probably Gainsbourg and Birkin’s most famous collaboration stateside).
For much of the first of the two films, however, which chronicle Joe's early life, she’s played by a series of child actresses (Ronja Rissmann, Maja Arsovic and Ananya Berg play Joe at ages two, seven and 10 respectively) and, from about 15 years until she gets a baby, she's played by newcomer Stacy Martin, a strikingly featured newcomer who happens to be of mixed British-French parentage, just like Gainsbourg.