by Paul Deines
My freshman year of college, I was rummaging through my roommate’s video collection when I found a cassette labeled with masking tape (this being our data storage system at the time) marked MEDEA. As a theatre student, I was game to watch a film of Euripides’ tragedy. Five minutes in I realized it was directed by the contentious Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, based on an unrealized screenplay by Carl Dreyer.
Not even 90 minutes, this mesmerizing Medea is comprised of stagy interchanges set among the crags and bogs of Denmark. Von Trier makes use of deliberate panning shots, overlain imagery and harrowing overhead angles that place characters in the thrall of nature. The scene where Medea commits her infanticide is both brutal and subversive, with one of this children assisting her in the killings; even by the standard of child murder, it is tough to watch. Lars von Trier’s Medea is a near perfect work of art.
I think it’s important to mention what a masterful and precise artist von Trier can be, especially in light of his newest work: the two-part, four-plus-hour, nose-thumbing quackery that is Nymphomaniac.
Have you have you ever been deeply immersed in a conversation with someone whose opinions you respect, someone that you regard as well-informed and intelligent, and this person says something so monumentally boneheaded that you begin to rethink your estimation of them? That is Lars von Trier’s latest film, a picture so proud of itself and yet so shoddily constructed that it makes me rethink his entire filmography. After this, I wonder if I’ve overvalued him for two decades.
So, let me attempt to enumerate the legion faults of Nymphomaniac.
The narrative, if you can call it that, is a flashback, as the eponymous sex-addict Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) relates her life story to the middle-aged virgin (Stellan Skarsgärd) who has rescued her from a beating in an alley. The Gainsbourg-Skarsgärd interchanges are actually fine in a goofy sort of way. She gabs dryly about her exploits like a shit-eating teenager; he frowns and squints and interrupts her to expound on fly-fishing, the Fibonacci sequence, and the East-West split in Christianity. This frame suggests a sort of deeply perverse screwball comedy.
No, the awfulness is in the flashbacks, where we see young Joe (Stacy Martin) commit herself to empty sex at the expense of every other pursuit, personal or professional. She starts a secret society of nymphs, engages in mass-transit sex competitions, and juggles lovers (illustrated in a playful but joyless fugue sequence). Then she falls for an alternately abusive and sensitive man played by Shia LaBeouf. Martin and LaBoeuf do their best, but they are little more than pretty and oft-undressed playthings in von Trier’s contrived, vacuous scenes. Equally outmatched are Willem Dafoe as a thinly defined gangster and Jamie Bell as the sort of bland fetishist that elicits giggles even from someone trying to take him seriously.
Then there’s poor Christian Slater, whose presence as Joe’s Father is as mystifying as anything I’ve seen on film. The fact that von Trier employs two actresses to play Joe (he does the same with LaBeouf’s character) indicates he cares about age-appropriate casting. So why cast the perpetually baby-faced Slater to play a haggard English botanist. His extended (Spoiler? Oh, who cares?) death scene should be heartbreaking, but von Trier’s refusal to make him look either aged or ill renders it as effective as Jenna Maroney’s death on Gossip Girl.
Only one actor comes out with a decent demo reel scene, and that is Uma Thurman. She ignites the film for a few captivating minutes as the frothing wife of one of Joe’s paramours. Then she’s gone, and we have three hours to go. The fluidity of some sequences – like the aforementioned train contest and Joe’s initial deflowering – recall the classicist aesthetic of Peter Greenaway, but most are duds, devoid of tension or nuance, and the touted hardcore sex (filmed with doubles) is edited in with about as much care as in Caligula.
What’s worst though is Lars Von Trier’s attitude about the whole thing. He has always fancied himself an enfant terrible, but his best films – Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Melancholia – pulse with empathy for his broken subjects. He can be chauvinist, but even his heretofore most misogynist film Antichrist (aurally referenced in Nymphomaniac in a particular moment of jackassery) is essentially an exploration of maternal grief. Nymphomaniac indulges all of the director’s worst impulses; it is resolutely sensational and sexist. We are supposed to leer at Martin and Gainsbourg’s bodies and yet be disgusted by their sexuality. He lingers on genitals, lips, fluids, and in one lame attempt at the racially incendiary, he frames Joe between two semi-erect black penises. The point? Your guess is as good as mine. The next moment, Gainsbourg is explaining why she uses racial epithets as a matter of principle. What principle? I dunno. And why are we supposed to be compelled by the fact that a labia, viewed from the side, resembles a closed eye? Well …
And it all culminates in a final twist that we saw coming about twenty minutes before the film started.
See, there is nothing bold or transgressive about Nymphomaniac. We’ve seen hardcore sex in more interesting pictures like Romance and Shortbus. We’ve seen the cruelty of modern sexuality in Irreversible. Christ, even a dud like Steve McQueen’s sex-parable Shame looks positively trenchant compared to this nonsense. That’s what Nymphomaniac is, anyway. Nonsense. It has nothing to say about sex, morality, dehumanization, gender dynamics, self-obsession, or any of the other wedge issues it pretends to explore. There are a lot of sins onscreen in this film, but the truly egregious one is Lars von Trier’s: laziness.
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… and the trailer below is decidedly NSFW. You've been warned.