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Review: ‘Nymphomaniac’ Is Lars von Trier’s Epic Attempt at a Sex-With-Brains Magnum Opus

Review: 'Nymphomaniac' Is Lars von Trier's Epic Attempt at a Sex-With-Brains Magnum Opus

Lars von Trier’s latest film, “Nymphomaniac,” which unfolds in two-parts across four hours in its current edit, is nothing less than the director’s bid to make his magnum opus.

While 90 minutes shorter than the version von Trier himself has made (rather than the “abridged and censored” version that hits Danish theaters Christmas Day ahead of its 2014 U.S. release), as it stands, “Nymphomaniac” is indeed a major work that tries and, to a large extent, succeeds to organically synthesize the world, ideas and filmmaking savvy of von Trier in one sprawling and ambitious cinematic fable. Somewhat shockingly given the subject matter, the most stimulating material in “Nymphomaniac” isn’t the explicit sex but how sexuality is discussed and understood.

This being a von Trier film, there’s a good deal of humor, too. The director’s script includes plenty of inventive sexual inquiry, including a monologue that compares the hunt for sex to fly-fishing and a lengthy discussion of how sexual pain compares to the divide between the Western and the Eastern Church.

The nymphomaniac of the title is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose life is chronicled for about four decades or so and who narrates her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), an asexual intellectual who’s all mind where Joe, the nymphomaniac, is all body. Seligman, a secular Jew, has literally picked her off the pavement, where he found her bloodied and almost unconscious. He’s worried about her and wants to call an ambulance, though she insists that’s not necessary and that she’s a “bad human being” and it’s all her fault. Seligman finds this hard to believe. The story of how she got there encompasses almost her entire life, seen in long flashbacks.

The film is divided into eight chapters. Except for the framing device, Joe’s life is mostly told chronologically, from the first time she can remember experiencing erotic pleasure at age seven (with Joe played by Maja Arsovic) on the bathroom floor with her best friend, B (Sofie Kasten), to the tingling sensation she received from a rope between her legs during a primary school gym class. The latter incident is illustrated with a simple yet very effective shot of a the end of a thick rope slightly moving above the floor, suggesting Joe’s somewhere off-screen — further up.

It’s that kind of effective restraint that eases the viewer into Joe’s increasingly more adult world. By the age of 15 (played by impressive newcomer Stacy Martin), she’s a vampish Lolita in a cardigan, plaid skirt and ruby slippers who orders a biker kid with strong hands named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) to take her virginity — which he does, in a couple of pointedly calculated thrusts (eight, to be exact, mirroring the number of chapters that make up the movie’s story).

Flashbacks to her life with her nagging mother (Connie Nielsen) and more sensitive father (Christian Slater), who’s got a thing for trees (hello Freud!), establish that Joe’s more tuned into her senses than most people. In short, she’s the perfect foil for Seligman, who’s all knowledge and no experience — and thus represents the polar opposite of Joe, who’s got no clue about books and famous writers (except in one egregious scene) but excels as an expert at men, copulation and more generally living through her body.

READ MORE: Selling Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’

The latter ability is mainly thanks to the teenage B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), who leads a club of young girls who make a deal to have sex with each man only once, as a form of rebellion against love. “Love is the secret ingredient of sex,” suggests one of the girls who dares to rebel against the rebels. For Joe, however, “Love is sex with jealousy added,” a philosophy that’ll make a nymphomaniac of her as she doesn’t want to hang on to any man, ever.

Interestingly, at least in this version, most of the sex is relatively tame, with barely any penetration on screen. Even so, “Nymphomaniac” certainly contains more penises, in various states of arousal, than any recent narrative film outside of pornography (actual sex scenes were performed by porn doubles whose heads were then seamlessly replaced in post-production by the heads of the actors).

Of course, the love/sex dichotomy is fertile territory for any film. Soon enough, Jerôme is back in the picture and Joe must to deal with the possibility that she might want to be with him again. It’s almost shocking to discover Jerôme might be the love of Joe’s life — especially because this means sitting through a lot more of LaBeouf’s toe-curling acting, which is so noticeably different from the generally laid-back Euro arthouse vibe of most of the ensemble that it stands out like a sore thumb. Jerôme’s described as the “image of careless elegance,” but instead of careless yet elegant the performance feels awkward and stunted underneath a veneer of Hollywood-style grandstanding. (The film’s entire fourth chapter, dedicated to the hospitalization of Joe’s father, played by Slater, suffers from similar problems.)

What resonates most about “Nymphomaniac” are the (thankfully numerous) scenes between Joe and Seligman. Without their back-and-forth discussions about Joe’s life, the film might indeed amount to little else than a long list of sexual exploits. Instead, they place Joe’s behavior in larger socio-political, historical and emotional contexts, with Seligman drawing on a life of reading and encyclopedic knowledge that no doubt stems from von Trier’s own wide-ranging interests, even though a battery of researchers are listed in the credits.

The film’s most delirious example of how the body and the intellect work together, and how this can be translated into film language, lies in the fifth chapter, titled “The Little Organ School.” Immediately after the death of her father, Joe is surprised to find herself wet between the legs, though Seligman explains that it is “common to react sexually to crisis.”

Their conversation then turns to her experiences with seven or eight lovers per night in the wake of her father’s death and how three of those lovers — F (Nicolas Bro), G (Christian Gade Bjerrum) and J(erôme) — stood out, each for a different reason. Yet together these trysts create a polyphony, as seen in the divine music Bach and Palestrina, combining into a harmonious sound.

Joe and Seligman’s discussions about these experiences extend beyond what she got out of her relationships and instead focus on how they correspond to certain ideas in not only classical music but also mathematical concepts such as the Fibonacci sequence. These conversations form a delightful intellectual spiel that’s quite a wonder to behold, suggesting there may be some kind of higher logic and reason at work behind what outsiders might simply describe as slutty behavior.

By using music and split-screen in this sequence, as well as archival footage of animals and material specifically shot for the film, one senses both the childlike glee of von Trier as a filmmaker in full command of all the possibilities that his film has to offer and his interest in thinking things through. At its best, the film doesn’t strain for meaning but instead treats all of its intellectualizing as a lark that can be taken seriously but doesn’t need to be.

However, perhaps it’s best to bear in mind this line of dialog, also from chapter five and uttered by Joe: “How do you think you’ll get the most out of the story — by believing or not believing in it?”

“The Little Organ School” and chapter six, “The Easter and the Western Church (The Silent Duck),” which opens the second part of what’s really one long film, best represent von Trier’s unbridled pleasure at mixing things of the body and things of the mind. This is especially the case after the introduction of K (Jamie Bell), a young but demanding master with a small battery of women (mostly homemakers, it seems), who come to be his slave for a couple of hours per week. They can sign up but they don’t know what they’re signing up for; that’s up to him, and there’s no way the women can make him stop doing what he’s decided to do.

Of course, von Trier uses the sequence to address S&M in general but on a more metaphorical level, he’s talking about being open to the unknown and its more advanced sister, perfect abandon, concepts that help people achieve great heights in both sex and in life — though not without some risk.

Joe ends up at K’s because she needs to learn to let herself go again. After having settled down with Jerome and having a baby with him called Marcel — no-doubt after Marcel Proust, whose “In Search of Lost Time” is one of the obvious literary influences aside from name-checked works such as “The Decameron” and “1001 Nights” — Joe loses the capacity to orgasm. 

An interlude with two African brothers, whom she summons to have sex with her but who don’t speak English and get into a fight buck naked, as well as a restaurant scene that features von Trier regular Udo Kier as a waiter, form the comic highlights of the story. Both arrive during the sixth chapter, which is as narratively nimble as chapter five and as brimming with ideas. Together, the two chapters represent the core of the film. Everything leading up to that point is an elaborate and spunky set-up (chapters one through three) or filler (chapter four, which juxtaposes sex and death in a not very original way in clichéd black and white imagery). But chapters five and six make up for all the weaknesses or arty longueurs preceding them.

“Organ” and “Church,” so to say, are the highlights or sustained climax of the film — with chapters seven and eight, in which Joe goes to a sex-addict group and becomes a debt collector for a very shady character (Willem Dafoe), respectively, feeling like concessions to the film’s linear and symmetrical narrative structure. They reflect a pressure to wrap things up while throwing in a couple more sexual oddities — notably a passive pedophile (Jean-Marc Barr), which gives von Trier the possibility to insert this no-doubt controversial line of dialog: “Pedophiles who don’t act on their desire deserve a bloody medal.”

In some passages, it’s almost as though von Trier is directly addressing his critics: A few exchanges about Seligman’s Jewishness as well as one involving the need for politically correct terms so words such as “niggers” can be avoided never quite find an organic way into the text; instead, they call to mind his infamous “Nazi” comments at a Cannes press conference. Rather than letting his characters speak, it’s clear that von Trier is simply trying to stir the pot, something that a film containing so much interesting material doesn’t really need.

The ending also suffers from pressure to go out with too much of a bang — though thankfully, it’s not how things conclude but the rapport between Joe and Seligman that lingers as a staging of the eternal battle between mind and body.

After two earlier films with von Trier, “Antichrist” and “Melancholia,” this third collaboration represents Charlotte Gainsbourg’s most fearless and also finest hour as she carries the film with ease. To say her character isn’t easy to love would be an understatement, but Gainsbourg manages to turn Joe into more than just a mouthpiece of von Trier’s ideas. She’s a living, breathing human being who perhaps lacks the intellectual understanding to analyze what she’s doing or why she’s doing it — but whose will to live makes her forge ahead no matter what.

Criticwire Grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening Christmas Day in Denmark, the film should find a welcome audience in its home country. Magnolia will release “Nymphomaniac” on VOD and theaters in March and April. Undoubtedly set to perform well in its immediate release, the film’s long-term prospects will rely on whether early word-of-mouth is strong or if audiences will feel let down in their hopes for a more graphic experience.

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