Monday, February 24, 2014

'Nymph()maniac Parts I & II' (2014) directed by Lars von Trier

It's perverse that a film where women get repeatedly punched in the face, pissed on, fucked up the arse, slapped, gorily whipped and generally humiliated all round should wind up as one of the most straightforwardly feminist works of cinema around.  But that's Lars von Trier for you.  It's impossible to go into this film without preconceptions, but funnily enough, after all the breathlessly prurient press hype about hot n' heavy porno cinema, there's nothing in these sex scenes that's particularly shocking.  There's a small thrill of novelty in seeing bobbling boners and quivering quims blown up to enormous size across a cinema screen, but all thefucking is in obvious service to an intellectual message and never feels remotely gratuitous or for the matter, particularly erotic.  

Nymph()maniac isn't even a particularly difficult film to decode; von Trier explicitly outlines his argument throughout - that society is shot through with hypocrisy when it comes to dealing with the spectrum of female desire. Over two films comprising four and a half hours, von Trier performs an exhaustive autopsy on misogyny: delving deep into how we instinctively judge 'fallen' women, how we compartmentalise female sexual desire and just how constrictive our supposedly enlightened post-sexism society is.  

All that and we also get lessons on (among other things), fly fishing tactics, the Fibonacci sequence, the 'satanic' tri-tone, Bach's use of polyphony, the perfect way to park a car, a short history of the division between the Eastern and Western Christian churches and the lifesaving qualities of the Prusik knot.  

The primary vehicles for this are the titular nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and Seligman (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd), who finds her bloody and beaten in an alley.  Refusing both ambulance and police, Joe is helped back to Seligman's dingy flat where he gives her a cup of tea and asks what happened to her.  The rest of the film is Joe's self-told life story, beginning with the immortal line "I was two years old when I discovered my cunt." (oh Lars...).  The rest of the run-time is divided into chapters, obliquely titled things like "The Compleat Angler" or "The Little Organ School".

After Antichrist and Melancholia, neither of which can really be described as pleasant experiences, it's surprising how lighthearted much of Nymph()maniac is.  Throughout Part I the cinema rang to the sound of laughter, von Trier confidently creating a kind of farcically absurd atmosphere - a distant comedy relative of Chris Morris' Jam.  It's in Part II where things darken up a bit, though no matter how disturbing things become they're always leavened by the bedrock of humour that underpins the film.  

By anyone's standards this film contains an embarrassment of cinematic treasures; the decadent run-time allowing von Trier the space to properly work through his argument. This is laid out upon a blank cultural canvas; though we see 40 or so years in the life of a woman we don't begin 40 years ago and we don't end in the modern day. The world of Nymph()maniac feels dislocated in time; a kludge of 1980s to contemporary fashion, technology and architecture - landing somewhere between Britain and Scandinavia, but never quite one or the other.  

In terms of performances there's a split between the von Trier veterans and the newcomers. Throughout Part I, which covers the first 25 or so years of Joe's life, she's played by newcomer Stacy Martin.  It's difficult to believe this is her first film, such is the gusto with which she hurls herself into the role - the prime weapon in her arsenal a devastating deadpan indolence. At times there's an eerie numbness as her face peers over the shoulders of the many men humping her  - giving the camera the bored expression you'd see on someone waiting at a bus stop.  At others, when she's at her most predatory, we detect the sadist lurking behind those big eyes, regarding the men around her like a snake might regard a mouse. 

Practically everyone else is great though; from Uma Thurman's bizarre scorned wife to Willem Dafoe's paternal gangster - all launching themselves into the material with total fearlessness. Particularly impressive is Jamie Bell as the s&m dom 'K'.  He runs a strip-lit utilitarian dungeon that looks like what the NHS would come up with if they started running a therapeutic sadomasochism service.  K is unreadable, clinically exacting and horribly violent, yet (as fucked up as this sounds) when he viciously beats Joe you sense the love in his blows.  The only real misstep is Shia LaBeouf as Joe's on/off longterm partner; his accent is one of the dodgiest I've heard for a long time, one moment somewhere around London, the next Sydney - then perhaps a short stop off in Cape Town.  

Though there's a ton a of A-listers here, the real prima donna of Nymph()maniac is von Trier himself. Every frame of this movie beats with his idiosyncratic heartbeat.  There isn't another director alive with an ego big enough to pull off some of this stuff; leaving his audiences open-mouthed as he launches into a stout defence of paedophiles who never act on their urges, pausing to argue that being anti-Zionist doesn't make you anti-semitic or, most bizarrely, a brief debate as to whether its acceptable to use the word 'negro'. At these points the characters (particularly Joe) transparently become mouthpieces for the director. It'd be easy to view this as a flaw in the movie but I enjoy this audacity, the marvellously bonkers self-confidence of a director who'd even consider putting this in a film. Anyway, despite the shaggy dog narrative, the digressions into trivia and the eyebrow-raising sociological arguments the film is never boring - an impressive feat given the gargantuan run-time.

At it's heart, Nymph()maniac is a baldly feminist statement about the hypocrisy of a society that supposedly strives for equality yet instinctively denigrates, slut-shames and abuses women that express themselves sexually.  One of the biggest character developments in the movie comes when Joe finally accepts that her proclivity for promiscuity is neither unnatural nor immoral - refusing to be characterised as a 'sex addict' and proudly adopting the label 'nymphomaniac'.  Throughout we also get jabs against rape culture - von Trier going out of his way to underline that no matter how many men a woman has slept with, no presumptions can be made as to whether she's going to sleep with you.  

The film goes so far as to equate feminine sexuality with religious awakening; orgasm associated with divinity and the labia visually linked to the spiritual 'third eye'.  In this vein, von Trier encourages us to view the beaten, bruised and damaged body of Joe as suffering passion in both the sexual and religious senses of the word, drawing direct parallels between Joe and Jesus Christ, both possessing a divine nature and both suffering under the fists, boots and scorn of a humanity that senses enlightenment and instinctively moves to crush it.

Modern culture tends to the juvenile, and consequently to the prudish - you only need to look as far as the kerfuffle surrounding this film's release to get an idea of just how immature a modern audience can be to a film that has a bit of fucking in it. It's deeply refreshing to see a film that's unapologetically positive about the whole of the sexual spectrum, casting off vestigial puritan moralities and presenting us with an unvarnished view of the world as is. Cinema is an art form that allows us view the world around us through others eyes; yet all too often these visions have blinders on them. In a von Trier film you never sense any restrictions as to what you're seeing - he alone apparently having unfettered access to the full range of human experience on film.

Nymph()maniac is a intelligent, beautiful and brave piece of cinema.  If you don't enjoy it then it speaks more to flaws within you than it does to any problems with the film. To know that there's people like von Trier out there with the guts to make these sprawling, messy, wonderful pieces of art that make this fucked up planet just about tolerable to live on.


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