Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, and early life by Stacy Martin), is a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, who recounts her erotic experiences to the man who saved her after a beating (Stellen Skarsgård).


Nymphomaniac: Volume I

BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL: Seligman, a middle-aged man of solitary habits and scholarly inclinations, is returning from the corner shop one winter’s night when he discovers the unconscious body of a woman lying in the courtyard of his apartment building. She appears to have been beaten –  though she refuses medical assistance; should he call either an ambulance or the police, she tells him, she will flee before they arrive. Instead, he takes her inside, tends her wounds, and puts her to bed. Where, Sibyl-like, she begins to talk.

Her name, she says, is Joe. And she likes sex – so much so, that it has been the motivating force, the engine, of her entire life. Ceaselessly impelling her from one encounter to another. (The film opens with a bracing blast of Rammstein; it might have been better scored to Jay-Z’s ‘On to the Next One’.) Perhaps, she wonders, he would care to hear her story?

Seigelman is bemused, but not incurious. And so, in a series of inventively-titled chapters – von Trier does like his formalist devices – she proceeds to relate her erotic history.

"Yes, yes, you’re thinking, very good... but what about the FILTH?"

Any doubts as to the frankness of what’s to follow are dispelled with her very first line: "I discovered my cunt at age two..." But potty-language aside, as structures go this is fairly standard stuff. Not only is Joe basically Scheherazade, playing to her audience of one, but given the professed insatiability of her appetites – sometimes up to ten lovers a day – there might well be 1001 men to describe. (Though no women, disappointingly.)

And like the Persian queen, she knows how to spin a tale; after the first instalment, about her exploits first as a child and then as a schoolgirl, her self-professedly ‘sexless’ listener admits at least to being intrigued, if not quite aroused. "I’m enjoying this," he says.

Maybe so – but is Joe? Her manner, like her tone, remains consistently glum; her obsession with sex, she claims, has deformed her personality and destroyed her life. ("This tale," she warns at the outset, "will be long and moral, I’m afraid.") As played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, she’s like Catherine Millet in her autobiography La vie sexuelle de Catherine M. – dutifully putting numbers on the board, yet deriving little in the way of pleasure from the actual encounters. (In that book, which was characterised by its blank, forensic tone, closer to J.G. Ballard than to Anaïs Nin, Millet claimed that, in the course of hundreds of encounters with strangers in various clubs de éschangiste and the Bois de Boulogne, she never experienced so much as a single orgasm.)

Joe’s hunger for experience is admirable, yet her motives seem inexplicable, to herself especially. She’s a thinly-conceived character, at least in her present-day guise – all experience and no personality – and Gainsbourg’s performance remains accordingly remote and blank; narrating, her voice never strays above a posh murmur. So much so, in fact, that her account quickly becomes monotonous.

Thankfully, she’s not onscreen much – in this instalment at least. Since most of her tale is drawn from her youth, told in flashbacks, von Trier has cast another woman as the young Joe: screen debutante (and Premier model) Stacey Martin. Who has something of the raw, angular intensity of Gainsbourg – who always seems, to me at least, to have a few too many bones in her face – but doesn’t hold the screen in a way that makes Joe a particularly compelling protagonist; watching, you occasionally find yourself wondering what a stronger actress, someone with more technique to draw upon, might have done with the role.

And then there’s Shia LaBeouf, as Jerome. Who takes Joe’s virginity and is forgotten, only to reappear in her life a few years later as her boss. The actor’s antics in Berlin – walking out of the press conference after dropping an old Eric Cantona quote, wearing a paper bag over his head on the red carpet – threatened to overwhelm the film’s festival premiere. Commentators were confused by the LaBeouf’s behaviour, but I’m rather more puzzled by what directors like von Trier and Oliver Stone see, exactly, in this workmanlike but utterly unremarkable little man; not since Jeremy Davies have I been at such a loss to explain the appeal or point of an actor.

It’s not that LaBeouf is bad – he’s okay, and no more or less than that... though I couldn’t for the life of me decide what his ‘British’ accent was trying to be. (Clearly, neither could he.) But any one of a hundred other actors could have done as well if not better – and since he’s not by any means an A-list star, I’m can’t see that casting him made the film’s financing any easier... So why use him?

Far better is Stellan Skarsgard as Seligman, a rumpled pile of paterfamilial concern. Likewise, as Joe’s beloved father, Christian Slater is surprisingly effective. (Connie Nielsen, as her mother, is glimpsed so fleetingly as to barely register.) But the real standout performance in Volume I belongs to Uma Thurman, whose one scene here – as a wronged wife, confronting her husband and his lover (Joe, naturally) – is hysterically, ferociously funny, packed with lines that it would be a shame to spoil. (Okay, maybe just one, delivered with pitch-perfect mock-ingenuousness: ‘Might the children see the whoring bed?’)

Indeed, if you hated Melancholia – if you found it as ponderous and trite and hollow as I did – then it’s a relief to discover that von Trier has rediscovered the sly sense of humour that animated earlier works like The Kingdom and The Idiots. The earnest tone of the opening chapter is deliberately, amusingly exaggerated: Seigelman’s busy cross-referencing of Joe’s every utterance to some piece of arcane piece of book-knowledge (citing everything from Mann and Poe, to Fibonacci Numbers and the history of Republican Rome) plays like a parody of a Tom Stoppard drama – showoff-y in its erudition, neurotically culturally omnivorous. An amateur fly fisherman, his attempts to match her carnal appetites to the finer details of the sport – complete with some extremely witty visual cutaways – prove endlessly entertaining. (As for that matter do some of Joe’s responses. After one lengthy speech, she fixes him with a weary gaze: "I think that was your weakest digression yet," she sighs.)

Manny Farber, the great American critic, once outlined the distinction between bloated, pretentious art movies (which he called ‘white elephant art’) and the smaller, more industrious and inventive ‘termite art’ he favoured. Von Trier is the white elephant filmmaker par excellence. His films are frequently taken for grand statements, for profound meditations on the human condition, simply because he works on a grand canvas, and is unafraid to try new things – and even to fail – in a way that many of his Cannes-consecrated peers (Haneke, Almodovar) will not.

If von Trier overreaches, it’s at least a spectacular, Hindenburg-crashing-down-in-flames-sized failure. In that respect, at least, he’s a courageous filmmaker – so much so, in fact, that the question of whether that courage is a genuine sense of artistic risk-taking, or simply an outcome of extraordinary self-belief, finally becomes irrelevant. But his is an emotional intelligence, not a cerebral one. Sure, he’s read (or skimmed) some of the great books, but he’s by no means a deep thinker. Rather, he’s a showman – a master stylist and a born provocateur. (Speaking of which: are we meant to detect, in his decision to make Seligman Jewish, a tacit mea culpa for the supposedly anti-Semetic remarks that saw him banned from Cannes?) But for him to be feted as a successor to Tarkovsky and Dreyer says, I think, less about his failings, than about the times in which he find ourselves.

Yes, yes, you’re thinking, very good... but what about the FILTH? Considering the notoriety this project attracted before even a single scene was shot, and the steady stream of news stories it generated before it premiered (the purported use of CGI for some of the explicit shots; that O-face poster), there’s actually a lot less of it than you might expect. In the uncut version, which screened here, there are at least tantalising flashes of filth – a hard-on here, a blowjob there, even a blink-and-you-miss-it cumshot – but much of that has reportedly been excised from the Australian theatrical-release version... and most of the really transgressive stuff here is anyway verbal rather than visual – and further nullified, both by Gainsbourg’s measured delivery, and by Joe’s patent sense of self-loathing. Anyone hoping for titillation, in other words, would be better advised to stay home, open a bottle of Merlot, and start searching Redtube.

Rather more inexplicable, though, was Berlin’s decision to program only the first half of the full, five-hour movie. Deferral of gratification is, of course, an accepted Tantric strategy. But this felt like something else, bitterly ironic given the subject-matter: an anti-climax.

Nymphomaniac: Volume II

* * 

In which we return once more to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), still holed up in her new friend Seligman’s spare room, and still telling the long and detailed—but mostly just long—story of her sex life. Not much has changed from the first film: her voice is still a kind of throaty, broken whisper; her reminiscences remain mostly self-loathing in tone, though occasionally shade into the actively nihilistic. Having endured the death of her beloved father, she is now married to the oily Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Who is still doing that appalling excuse for a British accent. And—good news!—a child is on the way.
Meanwhile, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) is still doing what he does best: plucking arcane factoids out of the air. When Joe describes a childhood epiphany—a spontaneous orgasm in a field, during which she claims not only to have levitated six feet above the ground, but to have simultaneously experienced a vision of two celestial women—he suspends disbelief and springs right into action, identifying precisely the right historical figures she saw. (Not the Virgin Mary, as Joe had long assumed, but Messalina, the famously promiscuous wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius.) This, just from the way she held her robe—with two fingers, as in the classical sculpture in the Louvre.
There is nothing, it seems, that Seligman doesn’t know… except (!) the touch of a woman. A stranger to lust, he is, he confesses, not only a virgin, but utterly disinterested in acquiring any sexual identity of his own, either of the hetero or homo variety. Yet this, he maintains, makes him the ideal audience for Joe’s tales: he’s not titillated in the least (somewhat to her bafflement), nor judgmental of her conduct. He’s just interested in the unfolding story—and then, mostly for what marginalia he can bring to it.
With his perpetually befuddled demeanour, his character’s tone-deafness to his own absurdity, Skarsgard is mostly playing for laughs; Seligman is less a developed character than some worst-nightmare Trivial Pursuit opponent. Alas, the tonal chasm between he and his scene-partner is widening by the second. Gainsbourg’s manner is so detached, and her performance so monotone, that it’s off-putting to the viewer.

Admittedly, she’s supposed to be in mourning: for the first time, Joe’s libido has failed her; her body—and her much-abused clitoris in particular—is beginning to turn against her. The story’s first half may have been about celebrating the appetites of youth, but the second is squarely about pain, dysfunction, frustration. In a word: age. (Accordingly, her youthful stand-in, Stacey Martin, vanishes shortly after the first chapter; the remainder of the film is Gainsbourg’s.)
But it’s also emblematic of a deeper problem here: never exactly swift, the film’s pacing pretty much grinds to a halt about 40 minutes in. And just as it does, the playfulness of the first instalment, the prankish sense of fun and possibility, also drains away; what’s left is grimly procedural, and as frequently unpleasant to watch as it likely was to shoot.
What redeems it, at least for a while, is a chapter dealing with her submission to a S&M master—played as an unreconciled mixture of efficiency, brutality and awkward, baffling shyness by Jamie Bell. The scenes between them, staged in an anonymous, sterile ‘institute’ of bondage, crackle with an electricity that’s been missing from the rest, partly because of the genuinely transgressive nature of their relationship—and the scenes of flagellation, shown in bruised and bloodied close-up, rival anything in The Passion of the Christ—and partly because Bell is such a fine, surprising actor, capable of finding detail and nuance in even a role as underwritten as this one. He holds the screen effortlessly; his presence compels our attention in a way that many of Gainsbourg’s co-stars here (and LaBeouf in particular) do not.
But once he’s gone, the film finds itself with a, er, hole that cannot be filled. Sure, there are a few witty images. (My favourite: a naked Gainsbourg sitting patiently on a hotel room bed, framed by two very large, very erect black penises.) And one or two good jokes. (I look forward to trying out ‘The Silent Duck’ on my wife….) But it’s not enough to compensate for the mounting tedium of it all, the sense that it’s all nothing but a formalist joke: two halves, each contradicting rather than complementing the other. (Because… you know… WOMEN!) And as the lighting grows dimmer, the palette muddier, and the tone darker, the story tilts finally toward expedience and absurdity.
Which is perhaps to be expected. As I’ve remarked before, Lars von Trier is a showman rather than a storyteller. He’s all about crafting indelible moments; he’s not interested in—or even especially good at—the messy, necessary details of plotting. This gets him into trouble when he attempts to display a more than passing acquaintance with the real world, the world away from movies, or Some Handy Facts I Pulled Off Wikipedia. (I’m not convinced, for example, that he knows any more about the business of criminal extortion—which Joe somehow gets mixed up in (don’t ask)—than he did about the profession of advertising in Melancholia. Which was all just about ‘taglines’, apparently.) Thus, as this narrative grinds to its climax, and the filmmaker feels obliged to wrap up this shaggy-dog story, the action becomes as stagily schematic as anything in Dogville. I shan’t spoil the ending, but it is rotten. Contrived, contradictory, ludicrous.
Certain commentators were puzzled that this film premiered outside of a major festival, but seen now it makes a kind of sense. This is by no means a ‘major’ von Trier; rather, it’s as much a divertissement as a provocation—an extended rummage through his back pages, replete with references to his previous body of work. (He would doubtless prefer the term ‘oeuvre.’) Some of which are overt—a sequence with Joe’s infant son in peril directly reprises the B&W overture from Antichrist—and others more in-jokey: a scene in a hospital, at her son’s birth, gestures for a moment toward the genre-horror of The Kingdom. Likewise, the office sequences from Volume I could have come from The Boss of It All—just as Joe’s coven of fuck-happy schoolgirls, with their sworn allegiance to a manifesto of pleasure, might as easily be The Idiots.
It doesn’t take long, therefore, before we realise that, for all its stern, confessional air, this isn’t about Joe at all; it’s only and absolutely about Lars von Trier—and never less so than when Joe is given a speech railing against political correctness, about how every word taken out of the language because it’s considered offensive is actually ‘a stone removed from the wall of democracy.’ Hmm, what on Earth could he be referring to
Melancholia, in essence, was about him being a bit sad. This one, it seems, is about him being lonely. And not your regular kind of lonely, but the peculiar, ennobling isolation of the provocateur-genius, whose motives and methods are constantly misunderstood by the world at large. Oh, poor Lars! you want to cry. Truly, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.