The reputation Lars von Trier‘s culled for himself in recent years has indeed been laid on thick, to the end that no more than a slight mention of world cinema’s enfant terrible will shut down many an otherwise-rational participant of potentially idle conversation, sending voices to their party-line positions for another shouting match. Weep for the worthwhile discourse while every step he takes in the public light — proclamations that he is the world’s greatest filmmaker; proclamations that he shares a kinship with history’s worst figure; the personal adoption of “Persona Non Grata,” a cease to all proclamations that will still speak louder than any other; yes, the O-face posters — so cloud how obviously every gesture in his cinema comes from a place of deep, irrepressible pain, in their totality emerging as the expression of a constant seeker.
“Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac,” the four-word combination by which his latest picture will most-commonly be referred, is a marketing tool in and of itself, identification that’s as much a magnet as (to name just a few things) those O-face posters, word of the kid from Transformers swinging his dick around, or the one-image promise to see a member of French cultural royalty be double-teamed by muscular men of African lineage. If we’re speaking of a hindrance which von Trier perpetrates primarily upon himself, so be it: we pay this price in full expectation of a storyteller who carves ideologies into his skin for all to see and judge, never performed with any real pretense as to how it might discomfit. This state of mind, this “hindrance,” is the same mentality that renders Nymphomaniac less a film about sex and more an intellectual provocation of varying difficulty — in which a brief study of the field known as “infantile sexuality” is treated with no lesser or greater an importance than, to name only a few standouts, Johann Sebastian Bach, fly fishing, Fibonacci, and James Bond’s preference for the Walther PPK. It begins with the less-intellectual provocation of Rammstein’s thrashing metal, concludes with the shrugging moroseness of its star’s whispery, slippery Hendrix cover, and doesn’t truly stray from either tone for the (roughly) 241 minutes its currently truncated two volumes come to amass.
An approach to dialectics that’s fairly simple-minded — it can often feels as if he didn’t much bother to investigate certain discussion topics past the opening paragraphs of their Wikipedia pages — but through a four-hour film that never slacks and only rarely feels errant in its depiction of all-consuming obsession, no less laser-focused. As both part of and through the von Trier-ian indulgences one can only reasonably anticipate or hope to tolerate, the noted digressions distinguishing and emboldening this package as deeply as much-ballyhooed sexual encounters is of some obvious note. For these to not only prove far more alluring and surprising than any number of unique trysts or experiments but, too, provide a tenable fabric is what attests to Nymphomaniac’s unique, unshakable power.
The conversations between Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe and Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman, himself a loner willing to circle sex back to an encyclopedic mind, lack any manner of subtlety, but that’s not necessary when either subversively stand as rather thorough surrogates for the director’s torn personality — less a miracle of orchestration than, perhaps more impressively, the natural conclusion of a self-absorbed and emotionally torn man putting two creations in a room with one another. Two mirrors of the artist’s psyche — a woman in love with her “cunt” and the “filthy, dirty lust” it inspires facing a man without so much as a few teenage masturbatory excursions to his name, himself only capable of listening or following-up with his own specific windows into the world — stare at one another in some attempt to reconcile worldviews; how much it’s genuinely part of these figures and how much of it comes from no more than the auteur is for you to decide.
More clear is that it’s the stuff of genuine comedy, a strategy which crackles with such pronouncement that I struggle to imagine even von Trier’s mostly unchanged formal play and ever-present, practically trademark didacticism breeding full resistance — one is unlikely to change their tune on these matters, but they might guffaw so often as to not care with nearly the same force. The sense that he’s mostly satisfied to explore and expand his own tastes for behind-the-camera expressions in moments confined to one room and two people — the main action is very much what one expects of him; whether or not this is welcome comes down to the individual viewer — is still the sense of an artist enacting self-to-self conversation from first scene to last. In returning to sources (Tarkovsky is referenced multiple times throughout, one chapter title included), examining the self (a particularly on-the-nose Antichrist callback emerges; maybe as a joke, maybe not) and making convergences (yet another image of a Gainsbourg character lying in a field makes way for a pronounced Stalker homage), a genuine softness and delicacy — melancholy, one might say — runs through the current of sex and recklessness.
But the sense that Nymphomaniac might have initially — in its instigating volume, at least — been truly pointing toward a softer register, salacious sights yet intact, shapes up to, rather, be a man sharpening knives in preparation for their kill. And as an ensemble piece that lives and dies by the character of its performers, it’s a work which might, rather neatly, be encapsulated in how nearly each and every performance requires a burrowing from light into darkness, initial absurdities of their sexual leanings cracked apart until treated — even in the case of pedophilia — with an equal seriousness and compassionate understanding. (Or, in the case of Uma Thurman’s Mrs. H — the eponymous center of a chapter that may contain one of cinema’s great one-scene turns — no more than the right amount of acidic humor.)
While von Trier has in him the capacity to be off-putting, undoubtedly, he’s rarely (if ever) one to create distance, but an artist who wants us to feel his pain, wonder, grief, excitement, and intellectual engagement with humankind, all seemingly disparate feelings clashing together in the mess of emotional trauma that serves as a certain personal artistic undercurrent. The capper to his “Depression Trilogy” — seemingly more a commercial phrase coined by someone close to his camp than official designation — thus strikes its final note with beleaguered acceptance of one’s place: even in the life of a nymphomaniac, the relationships which count might only come down to sex, a few acquaintances, and the associations one learns to bring to this.
Some have treated Nymphomaniac‘s final 30 seconds as a great joke — comparisons to the final line of Portnoy’s Complaint are relatively spot-on — but I see this as too fine a point on all that’s come before to be worthy of laughter, and instead serves as a concluding statement on male-female relations I’ve yet to fully shake — in part because it, over four hours, has been calibrated as all-too-plausible a cause-effect interaction. There were thousands of men, but never without Joe’s luxury of choice, never without her “cunt,” and never without the love of her “filthy, dirty lust” — and, after all this time, that much should never be taken away. Yes, Lars von Trier could’ve been fucking with us this whole time, but he’s never done so without reasonable purpose.
Both volumes of Nymphomaniac are available on VOD, while the second half is to enter theatrical release on Friday, April 4.