Film Review: Lars Von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC (Volumes 1 And 2)

Welcome Back, Folks!

Those of you who keep tabs on the world of controversial film, especially in the UK, will be aware of Lars Von Trier’s most recent work, which premiered across the country recently, as part of a special One Night Stand event run by the Curzon chain of cinemas, and was simultaneously broadcast to over 70 Picturehouse Cinemas as well. From the Curzon Chelsea, in London, actors Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark appeared, to undertake a short Question And Answer session, after the film premieres. I was lucky enough to attend one of the Picturehouse screenings, which were sold-out in most areas, and what follows is my review of both films. (A much-truncated alternate version of my review, also appears on Amazon.co.uk.)

With all the hype surrounding Von Trier’s recent release, I had high hopes for this film. Moreso as a fan of his previous works, such as MELANCHOLIA (2011), THE IDIOTS (1998), DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), and the 2009 arthouse shocker ANTICHRIST, which I reviewed for the Sex, Gore, Mutants site at  here  should you wish to read up on it. NYMPHOMANIAC: Volumes 1 and 2 follows Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she recounts her sexual escapades, from her childhood through to adulthood, to mystery man Seligman (Skarsgard), in his dingy flat. Joe is discovered in an alleyway, near Seligman’s abode, and he takes her back to his, after she refuses medical help. Over the course of 4 hours, (Volume 1 runs uncut to 118 minutes, and Volume 2 is uncut at 125 minutes), we follow Joe’s entire sexual life-history, from her escapades on a train with her friend B (Kennedy Clark), as a precocious teenager, to her first employment role under the tutelage of Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), whom she eventually marries, before discovering and ultimately accepting that she is – indeed – a nymphomaniac. Volume 1 houses the first five chapters, and Volume 2, the final three. The chapters all appear as on-screen titles, and are:

Chapter 1 – The Compleat Angler
Chapter 2 – Jerome
Chapter 3 – Mrs H.
Chapter 4 – Delirium
Chapter 5 – The Little Organ School
Chapter 6 – The Eastern And The Western Church (The Silent Duck)
Chapter 7 – The Mirror
Chapter 8 – The Gun

If you are expecting a 4-hour marathon hardcore pornographic epic, then you will be (justifiably) disappointed. In fact, if you are even expecting any shocks of any kind, then I think you will still be disappointed. This is not that shocking, not compared to previous Von Trier works at least. Hence, I can see why the BBFC had no problem passing this uncut and uncensored in the UK, with an 18 certificate for both Volumes.

Each chapter is linked-in to the relevant/pertinent part of Joe’s lengthy explanation of her sex life, and loosely tied-in to some “important” scientific fact or theme:  Fibonacci Numbers, fly-fishing, the human condition, etc, etc. Initially, this is very off-putting, but as a fan of Von Trier, I was happy to just go-with-the-flow, as his films are rarely linear in nature. With an amazing (and occasionally, not-so-amazing) list of cast members, including Christian Slater as Joe’s Father, Connie Nielsen as Joe’s Mother, Uma Thurman as Mrs H, Saskia Reeves as a nurse, Udo Kier as a waiter, Jean-Marc Barr as a paedophile, and Willem Dafoe as L, this film should have been a masterpiece. There is a lot of talent here, many of whom are so incredibly under-utilised, and seem merely to be making cameos for cameos-sake. It’s all a little too in-jokey for my tastes, moreso when many of the cameos offer nothing of any value to the work as a whole.

By the end of Volume 1, you just feel drained. It’s a long tale, told in an agonisingly painful fashion. Sadly, even by Chapter 3, I was getting restless. This is the chapter that Uma Thurman appears in, and it doesn’t work. What starts off as a woman demanding to know why her marriage is now being decimated, becomes unintentionally stupid by the end. The humour, and there is a lot of humour in this Chapter, and throughout the film, seemed forced, to the point that people seemed to be laughing at the film, rather than with it. The humour feels forced, jokey, and unnatural. When Thurman’s Mrs H asks Young Joe (Stacy Martin) “Would it be alright if I show the children the whoring bed? After all, they also have a stake in this event” then, retorts to her children and referring to Joe’s bedroom, says: “Let’s go see Daddy’s favourite place!, it seems squirm-inducing and painful to watch. On paper, and even in this review, it might raise a chuckle, but when shown in the film, I felt it difficult to judge why we should be laughing at what is really such a silly and platitudinous comment: part-sarcasm, part-invective. I know she’s upset, and I appreciate Mrs H is trying to explain and justify her newly-appointed position in her family, but it doesn’t feel like something someone would actually do. Not with three triplets in tow, aged approximately between four and nine years respectively. Most normal people would classify that as demented behaviour, at the best of times. Maybe in Lars’s world, this is what he would do. To the rest of us, it’s just pathetically childish. Even if Mrs H wants to get back at her soon-to-be-ex, it doesn’t feel remotely natural, not when children are involved.

Volume 2 is, in my view, the better half, but it has just as many flaws as the first one. Shia LaBeouf plays Jerome, Joe’s boyfriend and husband, but as an actor, he just can’t act for toffee. I’m sorry, but he is simply too immature and smug. At no point do I see Jerome as the man he is supposed to be – a manager of a major family company: the boss! What I do see, is Shia hamming it up, and coming across like a complete turd, almost as if he doesn’t give a damn about the film he’s supposed to be in. That’s fine, but don’t sign-up to a project like this, simply to take the money, and then fuck-around like a gigantic prick!

Incidentally, LaBeouf did himself no favours, when on Sunday 9th February, at the Berlin Film Festival, he appeared on the Red Carpet at the NYMPHOMANIAC World Premiere, with a paper-bag on his head, with the words “I Am Not Famous Anymore” – See  here  for the photo and further details. He’d already stormed-out of a Press Conference for the film, the previous night, exclaiming – get this – “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.“. He really is completely deluded! Some might argue the pressure of celebrity is getting to him. Others may argue that his recent allegations over alleged copyright theft and infringement of other people’s work had got to him even more – see  here  for a complete time-line and explanation! Either way, acting an arse on-screen, and in real-life will do nothing for your public perception or appreciation. You’re just going to look like an arse!

The film does have an ending, so if you do manage to sit through all four hours, you do reach a conclusion that is reasonably satisfying. But this is a film that is going to bore many people, long before it entertains them. It’s not that well written and filmed, though some occasional moments of brilliance do appear, but these are few and far between. The rest of the film’s gargantuan duration, is just annoying, stilted and cloying. Underneath this epic mess, there is a great film desperate to get out. If Von Trier had trimmed it by at least a whole hour, then he would have made a better film. But even between two-and-a-half and three hours, it still would have been pushing things. At four hours, it’s just needlessly excessive bloat.

Yes, the film does feature some explicit adult sexual material, but if you’ve survived ANTICHRIST, or THE IDIOTS, then this is unlikely to shock or sicken you. Shots of female and male genitalia, in this day-and-age, are not going to offend that many of Von Trier’s fans, and it doesn’t here. What sexual material there is, is relatively restrained, so if you intend to watch this, with the idea of getting-off on it, then you will be extremely disappointed, because it’s simply not the pornographic epic that the press have been claiming NYMPHOMANIAC is. It really isn’t. There’s maybe 20 minutes of sexual material, throughout the entire 4 hours! The rest is narrative and drama.

Probably the most contentious scene, and one I found a little racist, is when Joe sets-up a tryst with two black men, purportedly from Africa. Whilst they talk to each other, in unsubtitled Afrikaans, supposedly over who should get to insert their genitals where, we see these two men, with gigantic erections. Now, within the context of the film, Joe being a nymphomaniac, and wanting to experience a threesome with two black men, is in-and-of-itself, not offensive. The problem, is that the scenes plays on some horridly offensive stereotypes:

1) The stereotype that all black men, have impressively long genitals.

2) The cliche that “foreign” black men are more able to sexually satisfy white Western women.

Now, whilst the first stereotype is generally not true, there will always be exceptions. Yet those same exceptions equally to white men, as they do to blacks. There’s no evidence that proves conclusively, that if you are of X skin colour that you will be generously blessed with a massive penis. It’s crude, crass and nauseating. The second stereotype, is also, equally offensive. Just because you are of a certain skin colour or ethnicity, does not mean you will be any better (or any worse, for that matter) at being able to sexually satisfy anyone of any other skin colour, or from any other ethnic background. I know porn loves to use these cliches, but porn isn’t about reality. It’s a fictional narrative created, solely to play-up to stereotypes, to please its audience, and to get that audience off, in the most enjoyable way imaginable. Hence why so much porn, involves women with unfeasibly large and inanimate breasts, and all the men have genitals that make them look like they have a third leg!
To have Joe refer to the two men as “Negro’s”, is also deeply insensitive. We’re not “Negro’s” any more, Lars! Nor “coloured”, or “niggers” or “coons”, or “Paki’s” or “towelheads” or whatever other derogatory word you want to use, to raise a giggle in your audience. We’re either African-American, or Black’s. It’s really simple! Likewise, to then have Joe try and justify her politically-incorrect moment, and dress-it-up as some kind of “I’m just being provocative and oh-so-deadpan, and I don’t actually mean anything rude by using that term” is equally insensitive. This is 2014, not 1950, for fuck’s sake, and Von Trier should know better than this. It’s beneath him, and us, as audience viewers! If you want to tackle the subject of racism in history, then by all means do so, but not as a casual side-joke, in a film called NYMPHOMANIAC, where the subject matter is forced-in-sideways, as some kind of unfulfilled pre-cursor.

Many of the guest cast are wasted. Connie Nielsen, as Joe’s mother, barely warrants her name being attached to this project, as she appears for a handful of minutes at most. Christian Slater, as Joe’s father gets a bigger and more interesting role, yet things happen to him, that aren’t explained. (His mystery illness in Volume 2, for example!) And, bearing in mind Slater is only two years Gainsbourg’s senior in real-life, the fact that he’s supposed to be her father does seem a tad unlikely, within the role of the film, seeing as he never appears to age, whether with child-Joe, teenage-Joe or adult-Joe!

Gainsbourg puts her all into the role, and for that, I commend her. Skarsgard does his best, with the material he’s given, but it’s not his best work, that’s for sure. Newcomer Stacy Martin, as Joe as a teenager, is very impressive in her screen debut, and equals Gainsbourg with gusto, and for that, she should be commended also. This can’t have been an easy role for any actress to take on, let alone someone new to cinema.

Those of you wanting to experience NYMPHOMANIAC for yourselves, can find them in selected cinemas in March and April, before a UK 2-disc DVD and 2-disc Blu-Ray release, in May. But ultimately, this is a film that really goes nowhere, and will leave many frustrated. There is a good film hidden here, but what we’ve got is not worth the sum of its parts. A relentlessly frustrating experience all round.

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Film Review: Lars Von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC (Volumes 1 And 2)

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