Von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC (misnomer) - Volume 1

By Moira Sullivan
Renaissance style photo used to promote 'Nymphomaniac at Cannes 2011.

The press conference with Lars von Trier after the screening of his 'in competition' film Melancholia at the 2011 Cannes gave insights into the workings of his mind. There had been a lot of discussion about the comments that led him to being banned from the festival that year, bungling comments in bad humor that came across as anti-semitic, and it was obvious to all that the Danish director has poor people skills. Claiming his next project would be a porn film with Kirsten Dunst (who immediately said no) and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the two actresses in Melancholia smiled nervously and laughed away the alleged film that von Trier was planning. That film is now out in limited release, Nymphomaniac, Volume 1.

The claim that von Trier writes “great parts for women” is not altogether true unless you applaud him for writing parts for tortured women. One of von Trier’s early student films is about an old man who preys on young women.  Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a woman who is burned at a stake for being a women’s studies professor in Antichrist (2009) and  Emily Watson allows herself to be sexually used by men at her husband’s suggestion in Breaking the Waves (1996). Actually, women don’t seem to hang around von Trier for long, great parts or not. He doesn’t have a stable of regular actresses like Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen. Where is Emily Watson today? Björk, who was in Dancer in the Dark (2000), refused to speak to him after the film was finished and screened at Cannes, and although he begged Nicole Kidman at another Cannes press conference to be in a sequel to Dogville (2003) as part of a ' trilogy' (as yet unfinished), she has yet to return.  There is one actress that is breaking that cycle, Charlotte Gainsbourg. who won the best actress award in Cannes for Antichrist. The message could not be clearer:  if you suffer as a woman to the point of a physical meltdown, this is called 'art' and you win a prize at Cannes. Gainsbourg said of her role in Melancholia, “we are not women, we are Lars”, a truly insightful revelation.

In Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (the volume part suggests a distribution plan for cutting an epic length film) , the film that came off as a joke at the Melancholia press conference, is the story of a 'nymphomaniac': the young Joe ( Stacey Martin ) and the older Joe (Gainbourg) whose first sexual encounters are with a playmate in her bathroom and later a young man working on a motorcycle (Shia Leboeuf) who later becomes her employer. There are plenty of such encounters for the next two hours and von Trier seems to get a pubertal kick out of staging one raw sex scene after another within his sophisticated 'mis en scéne'.  

The film’s conceit is that it purports to be an 'intellectual treatise' about the rampant sex.  Borrowing from Quentin Tarantino’s style of writing numbers on squares over the screen space is a scene with a car parking in a space that is too small, which is (over) explained mathematically. Joe competes with a young girl to have sex on a train with strangers, and has a system of numbers for rejecting suitors by casting dice. This includes the married man of 'Mrs H' (a Danish sounding Uma Thurman), who comes to Joe's apartment to confront her with their three sons after her husband decides to abandon them.

Cinema's contribution to the arts is its mobile visual language, and here von Trier sets the clock back. Other numeric elements include a nonsensical use of the Fibonacci sequence and the approximation of the golden spiral. Split screens are used to juxtapose the young nymphomaniac and a leopard (adolescent symbolism of raw sexuality), and comparisons are made with fly fishing and feathered bait (the same), further vulgarities of cinematic language.  Joe is prey for the Danish director and he has cast out his line to catch her in moments of rapture which is just dull, mechanical sex. For anyone who finds this erotic, the joke is on you. The young girl's father (Christian Slater) is a physician who loves the trees of the forest and walking alone with her in them, and she loves her father and then there is that aloof and distant mother who really doesn't love her father like Joe does, a scenario that often suggests incest. The superficiality of the script and the visual language is transparent, and far from translucent.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as the older Joe is seen in the beginning of the film lying on the ground in an apartment complex. She has been beaten up and is discovered by her neighbor (Stellan Skarsgård) who takes her home and listens attentively to her life story, as we also try to make sense of it. This is a setup as we will learn in Volume 2.

The cinematography and art design of the film apart from mechanical shots of mechanical sex is brilliant,  set for the most part in the 1990s with huge cell phones. The soundtrack is the almost comic "Waltz 2 "by Shostakovich used contrapuntally in Stanley Kubrik’s failed erotic saga ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. Here you can almost hear von Trier chuckling over an obvious rib at the late filmmaker and Nicole Kidman, for  the Dane's film is a hit and miss that is equally unsuccessful. It is a mystery how such a stylish film has such a banal story. Had he something to say instead of throwing numbers at the screen to intellectualize subject he is not able to comprehend, it could have been one of von Trier’s best visual films.

We never know who beat up Gainsbourgh’s Joe in V1 but her constant lament that it was her fault and that she has sinned,  a failure that seems more of a mea culpa for Lars. After all, Joe is not a woman, she is Lars, as Gainsbourg explained about von Trier's mutilated women when Nymphomaniac was a loose fantasy in the mind of this director.

© 2014 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 03/19/14
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