Divided into two parts for commercial reasons, but worth seeing in one sitting – most art house cinemas are allowing the option of seeing them together with a short interval – Nymph()maniac has been declared as Lars von Trier’s magnum opus and it certainly feels like a summation of his career, of both the films and the public controversies.
It is difficult to write about what Nymph()maniac is about since it is a highly deceptive film, seemingly about nothing in particular and about everything at once. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) is walking home when he spots a woman lying in an alley, brutally beaten. She calls herself Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and, refusing medical help, agrees to go to Seligman’s flat for a cup of tea and some rest. Once there, she starts to talk about her life from her first sexual experiences to her adulthood coping with, as she insists on calling it, nymphomania. Insisting also that she is a bad person, her stories are intercut, and frequently punctured, by Seligman’s digressions into all kinds of subjects that seek to naturalise her seemingly extreme behaviour. This digressions move from the art of fly fishing to Bach’s music, to differences between Eastern and Western theology, to mathematics and art.
Nymph()maniac is, in many ways, a highly satisfying art film in the best sense of the term, since it is a fascinating and multifaceted discussion of a series of themes all presented to an audience positioned to watch critically and engage with the subject matter. The film’s Brechtian devices allow the audience some distance from the often intense drama, allowing them to question the events onscreen and come up with their own conclusions concerning what the film is about and what the film is doing. These Brechtian devices are present in many different forms and are often fascinating to detect. The film begins with Joe lying in the alley, snow gently gliding down onto the scene while the camera focuses on the sets, creating a sense of the construction of the scene as opposed to it’s drama. This is also the site of the film’s first major disruption – the sudden explosion of Rammstein’s “Führe Mich” – that immediately throws the audience out of whatever impression they were forming of the film. Taken as a distanciation device, it is a powerful moment of upset that would probably make Brecht, or Godard, proud. It also represents a certain bravery in Lars von Trier’s film, which gleefully subverts the conventions of ‘good’ art, since the sudden inclusion of this song is so disruptive and, ultimately, hard to take. It also reveals how, even from the opening minutes, Nymph()maniac is not afraid to risk losing you.
The film is a discursive, dialectical work that offers a multitude of perspectives and arguments over one significant, unifying theme. As a result, it may appear to be about nothing – a meaningless exercise in brutality – though it is the arguments and the digressions and the film’s refusal to simplify its themes into easily digested titbits that makes Nymph()maniac worthwhile. While Joe recounts her life story – unreliably since her stories (told in eight chapters) seem to be based on objects littered about Seligman’s room – she could be seen to be confessing her crimes in a final act of masochistic penitence. Either this or she is gleefully asserting her nymphomania, wanting to shock the intellectual Seligman. Seligman, however, insists on drawing parallels between her behaviour and a variety of subjects, including art, architecture and mathematics. Gainsbourg subtly conveys a degree of annoyance, flustered that the frequent shock tactics in her storytelling only seem to invigorate Seligman’s intellectual curiosity. Only towards the end of the film is Seligman properly appalled (on the subject of Joe’s pity for paedophiles) and Joe gleefully argues her position, seemingly changing his mind on the subject.
This seems, to me, to be key to the understanding of the film. The film is loaded with references to Lars von Trier’s previous work and to his public appearances. Seligman’s comment that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are too frequently confused would seem to be a gesture towards the controversy surrounding von Trier’s Nazi comments which had him declared persona non grata at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. He also recreates the controversial scene of child death from Antichrist as well as that film’s themes of female sexuality as monstrous. The film has Joe’s husband Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) suggest she see other men in order to help their sexual relationship as well as having Joe have a spontaneous orgasm played as a religious experience, both suggesting Breaking The Waves. Joe’s shock tactics, if that is what they are, may represent what are perceived as von Trier’s own shock tactics. As a result, the figures of Joe and Seligman can almost be seen to be two strains of von Trier’s own personality – just as, in Melancholia, Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) depression seemed to represent von Trier’s own. But what of that? Lars von Trier is a filmmaker who airs out his own issues and thoughts via fictional means. In Nymph()maniac, Joe also tells stories, the veracity of which are often in doubt. Seligman’s frequent parallels with art suggest that Joe’s problems are far from unique and that art – be it music, writing, architecture, fly fishing – offers, to a degree, comfort for one’s problems. In other words, Seligman’s interpretations naturalise Joe’s issues, the shocking and the mundane alike, and helps her to come to terms with them and Nymph()maniac is primarily about the regenerative power of art. This would seem to certainly be the case towards the end of the film in which Joe is left feeling, though not entirely convinced, assured and positive about the future. However, in a shock ending, so frustrating since the film had suddenly seemed to find a heart and something positive to say, von Trier gives a lie to such simplistic notions about life and art, suggesting that there is ultimately no answer. It is, however, a great moment, reminding us of the use of Rammstein in the beginning of the film, puncturing our need for art to say something affirmative and our need for an empathetic figure that we can all get behind – a ‘good’ man in ‘good’ art.
As it is, Nymph()maniac remains a difficult but fascinating film that can either mean nothing at all or is brimming with ideas and themes. This review constitutes only the first impressions, since I have only seen the film once, and barely scratches the surface – especially since it hasn’t even mentioned the film’s representation of nymphomania or female sexuality in general, the use of brackets in the title in place of the ‘o’, the performances (Shia LaBeouf’s dodgy British accent as another Brechtian device (?), the awkward actor changes between young and old versions of Joe and Jerome another (?)) or the scene in which Joe tries to have sex with two African men that she is unable to understand, which feels horribly racist and probably requires a whole other review. It does, however, suggest that Nymph()maniac is a complex work, a fascinating if uncomfortable watch and quite possibly von Trier’s most challenging film.