Whatever your opinion on Lars Von Trier, he remains one of the true provocateurs of contemporary cinema. By now it’s hard not to have noticed the sexed-up marketing posters for his latest film Nymphomaniac, depicting its various stars with their best orgasm faces – Udo Kier is particularly great. Many have been quick to dismiss the film, claiming its existence as being merely for the exploitation of sex on screen and an excuse for Von Trier to push his videography of provocation ever further. Beneath its gratuitous exterior, however, lies a visceral, transcendent piece of cinema bound to fuel discussion on the themes of solitude, self-loathing and the timeless question of whether love is simply sex with added jealousy.
Originally intended as a five and a half hour uncut journey into nymphomania, producers have since sliced the film into two, two-hour parts for theatrical release. Von Trier’s original uncut version is due to screen at the Berlinale next month for those keen to see his vision intact. Nevertheless, Part One presents an enthralling voyage into the life of a woman fully aware of her obsession, but unable to prevent herself from remitting.
Nymphomaniac opens with a series of slow establishing shots across a desolate estate as soft snow slowly falls. Its stark beauty is met by the figure of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lying battered and bruised on the cold wet ground. As with his most recent outings in the form of both Antichrist and Melancholia, Von Trier takes great joy in juxtaposing the beauty of nature with human affliction. It’s at this point German industrial favourites Rammstein, devour the opening silence with their trademark heavy rock soundtrack, as Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) leaves his flat, only to discover Joe’s motionless body before him. His offer to call an ambulance or the police are sharply refuted before Joe finally accepts his offer of warmth and a cup of tea. Thus begins a series of long flashbacks, told through chapters, as Joe begins to recount her adolescence and early years of nymphomania.
“I first discovered my cunt age two.” The majority of Nymphomaniac Part One follows young Joe, played with subtle grace and beauty by British newcomer Stacey Martin, as she first embarks on her sexual encounters. From losing her virginity in the most unromantic manner to Jerôme (a surprisingly good turn from Shia LaBeouf), to competing with her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) in having sex with as many people as possible on a commuting train, Joe’s rapid descent into nymphomania seems to stem from her belief that there is no place for love in sex. Her relationship with her mother (Connie Nielsen) is nonexistent, yet her father (a somewhat rejuvenated Christian Slater) is seen as a kind soul, a doctor who teaches Joe the beauty of nature. In fact, the only occurrence of real emotion from Joe comes whilst her Father slowly dies in hospital. Yet even here, episodes of crying by his bedside are combined with passing sex with hospital staff in neighbouring rooms. It’s the kind of dark-toned humour Von Trier fans will adore.
The standout performance of Part One comes via Uma Thurman’s brilliant cameo in Chapter 3. Playing the role of Mrs H, a distraught woman, who after learning her husband is leaving her and their children for Joe, arrives at Joe’s flat, kids in tow, to confront her husband and his new lover. “Do you mind if I show the children the whoring bed?”, she politely asks. It’s a masterful performance in an unforgettable scene, tip-toeing on the edge of melodrama and total farce.
Regardless of its moments of ridicule, Nymphomaniac is undoubtedly a serious, if not surreal, piece of cinema. Despite the opinion of early critics, every sex scene feels necessary and integral to the flow of Joe’s story. Whilst it’s difficult to judge the film without viewing Part Two (deemed much darker by some), it’s clear Von Trier has created another art piece bound to raise debate for years to come. If Antichrist and Melancholia had a child, Nymphomaniac would be the result. Let’s just hope it doesn’t all fall apart in Part Two.