Nymph()maniac begins with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finding the injured Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a back street. He takes her in and she recounts the story of her life – from sexual awakening to near-destruction – in eight chapters, the narrative frequently returning to the present for the pair to reflect.
It’s often difficult to assess a Lars von Trier film without extensive discussion of the director. This is again the case here. Despite refusing to speak to the press before release – his Hitler gags went down badly at Cannes three years ago – he’s ensured he is central to the surrounding narrative: a picture of him, mouth taped, has been widely circulated during the film’s promotion, while the poster of its actors in various states of ecstasy and obnoxious vulvic parentheses replacing the ‘o’ in the film’s title are typical of his provocative playfulness.
All of this diverts attention from the work itself, though it’s worth mentioning because once the curtain comes up Von Trier is rarely far away; one suspects that when Joe or Seligman express an opinion they are convenient vessels for broadcasting his own. And he takes the occasional sideswipe at perceived wrongs, most obviously early on when Seligman delineates the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and the authorities (presumably including French film-festival directors) who misunderstand.
Characters come and go swiftly, rarely featuring more than once alongside Joe, played in flashback for most of the first and some of the second volume by Stacy Martin; a very funny cameo from Uma Thurman as a scorned wife is the highlight of Vol I, with Shia LaBeouf – showcasing an extraordinary accent – the only near-constant character bar Joe and Seligman. By the time Jamie Bell enters in Vol II the narrative has taken a more sinister turn.
As self-reproaching Joe recounts another sexual experience Seligman finds another parallel from literature. This is played mostly for laughs, with Skarsgård’s deadpan interventions about fly-fishing and knots. Here, Von Trier also riffs on the film’s structure, comically having Joe chide Seligman for “your weakest digression yet”, after one that is of similar strength to the rest. The repeated diverting analogies get more tiresome as the film progresses but the obviously intended humour makes it one of Von Trier’s less alienating films – we’re invited to share in the jokes rather than, as suspected in some of his previous films, being the butt of them.
That’s not to say the film carries a great deal of emotional weight, but there is a feeling Von Trier has something sincere to say about sexuality, loneliness and storytelling. Part of this is rooted in the only relationship that spans the entire film. Between Joe and Seligman there is a contrast between someone who has experiences to tell of and someone who has none, having lived his life in books. It’s contrived but works well.
A series of visual distractions are funny at times, tiresome at others. The second volume is the more disturbing, with plenty of uncomfortable scenes that resist easy interpretation. The sense of unreality central to the narrative – when Seligman shows scepticism at a coincidence which brings LaBeouf’s Jerome back into the picture towards the end of Vol I Joe tells him it is his her story, and his choice whether her believe it – may be Von Trier’s way of giving himself licence to simply provoke.
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