Sex and naked people and genitals and sadness
Loves: Artistic genius
Likes: Gratuitous nudity, Lars von Trier
Hates: Mortality, children in peril
I don't know why I am at all surprised when I watch a von Trier film that I end up feeling pretty awful afterward. At this point, it's obvious that if he's going to be making a film that it will make one question the value of existence and make one severely depressed in the end (even his "comedy" The Boss of it All wasn't exactly a laugh riot.) Thus, there was no reason to suspect that a four-hour drama about a woman addicted to sex was going to have a happy ending. And as Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) unfolds her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the older man who found her brutally beaten in an alleyway, it's pretty clear that, like von Trier's other leading ladies, Joe will not have a good go of it.
Joe's problems center around her obsession with sex, which manifests itself in every way possible over the course of four hours, as a conversation with Seligman covers her life from her discovery of sexuality as a child to the events that left her battered and bleeding on the cobblestones near his door. Sexually-adventurous early years give way to frustrating adulthood and painful middle age, in a conversation wonderfully structured like a book, complete with chapter titles and visual touches that clearly define each part. As she moves from situation to situation, lover to lover (all depicted through flashback), Seligman, an avowed virgin and man who, if not religious, is knowledgeable of religion, is drawn into her story, resulting in side discussion and philosophical give-and-take, adding another angle to the film, as it's no longer just Joe's story, but Seligman's critique of her life.
The sex (and nudity) is frank and explicit, with full penetration (coitus and oral), achieved through a mix of body doubles and digital wizardry, however it is anything but titillating. In fact, it happens so often and without any real emotion or passion, and often with negative consequence or ugliness, so it becomes as exciting as a handshake. Von Trier simply goes for it, putting everything, from pedophilia to sexual violence, right in your face, daring you to blink. However. as awful as that content can get (and the scenes with Bell are as harrowing as anything ever seen in a mainstream film), it's the emotional devastation that hits harder than anything. Uma Thurman is brilliant as a woman walking a tightrope edge of a breakdown, whose family is destroyed by Joe's actions, initially eliciting giggles for her bluntness, before drawing abject horror with her expressions of pain. Another scene, which echoes a similar moment from von Trier's Antichrist, was so upsetting it had me covering my eyes and shaking my head "no" in response.
For as dark and cruel as Nymphomaniac can be, a feeling exacerbated by the four-hour length, it's incredibly well-made, with von Trier taking full advantage of his skill as an artist, right from the outset, when an extended beat of blackness leaves you immediately wondering what's waiting for you. The use of graphic elements, like text overlays and illustrations, to the integration of unique touches, like stock footage and chapter headings, give the film a different feeling, adding to the twisted storybook concept, There's a faint sense of artificiality to the proceedings that prevents you from questioning what happens in this foreign world, aiding in the suspension of disbelief that might be hampered by Joe's questionable decision-making.
Von Trier is also aided by a stellar cast, with the leads, including newcomer Stacey Martin as young Joe, imbuing their characters with humanity and. more importantly, pain (with the exception of LaBeouf, but more on him later.) Martin and Gainsbourg, besides sharing enough physical similarities to play different ages of the same character, both have the ability to slip back and forth between control and vulnerability, a key element for Joe. The supporting cast gets its time to shine as well, especially the aforementioned Thurman, Bell, who will open some eyes with his performance, Christian Slater, who acquits himself well as Joe's father, even if he's still mostly playing Christian Slater, and Willem Dafoe, who has a small, but effective part in the second volume.
While watching this film, one question kept cropping up though, again and again: was I judging Labeouf based on his performance (including a rather terrible accent), or was I judging him based on who he has presented himself to be over the recent years of his career? It's rather hard to say, especially when his character is full of the ego and obnoxiousness that has come to define LaBeouf as a celebrity actor. The only way to honestly evaluate his role is to question whether another actor could have done a similar or better job as Jerome, and truthfully, he doesn't bring much to the part that another couldn't have (with the exception of his accent, which one hopes is uniquely his.) He's not bad, but he's definitely LaBeouf.
Note: The two volumes here make up the unrated international version of the film, not von Trier's five-and-a-half-hour director's cut, which will reportedly be released at a later date.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track doesn't offer a great deal in terms of dynamic mixing, but it has plenty of power, mostly in regards to the soundtrack, which makes great use of both Rammstein and Steppenwolf, while keeping the dialogue clean and crisp.The surrounds are mainly responsible for some light atmospheric effects, while the low-end kicks in, again, mainly with the soundtrack. Rammstein was made for home theaters. A quality track, but certainly not one that will show off your system.
Beyond that, there's a fluffy bit from one of Magnolia's sister companies, titled "AXS TV: A Look at Nymphomaniac" (3:02), which cuts some clips from the same interviews heard before in and around the first volume's trailer, while you also get the trailers for each volume, though these are not the infamous, more explicit trailers that earned the film's its initial attention.
The Bottom Line