Published on April 1st, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Lars Von Trier’s two-part film about nymphomania isn’t really about nymphomania, nor as controversial as you’d expect, you know, for a movie full of dicks.
Nymphomaniac is a movie with a lot of genitalia flying to and fro across the screen; humping and pumping and dumping and dicks and cocks and pussies and chains and whips and chips and dips. Hell, the movie is actually called Nymph()maniac, with the brackets that make the letter ‘o’ also not-really-that-cleverly implying a vagina. But for a movie with so much taboo going on, it’s not as controversial as we had been led to believe when it was announced (in fact, director Lars Von Trier getting booted out of Cannes for making a joke about Hitler seems more controversial, really).
At first I thought, maybe it’s just me? After all, that’s a lot of dicks and pussies and whippings and whatnots. Maybe I’ve just been desensitized over the years? Well, that may be true to a degree, and honestly, I’m sure that if your Grandma watched this movie, she’d clutch her pearls and faint. But part way through screening it, I realized, it wasn’t just me. The movie isn’t that controversial, the sexy parts at least. In Steve McQueen’s Shame, when you keep seeing sex (and Michael Fassbender’s Godzilla-sized dink), you don’t feel sexy/naughty — you’re not supposed to. You feel icky in a more psychically scarred way (and emasculated if you’re a man). But it’s not controversial in the way that forces a small town preacher to step in and try to ban rock n’ roll and dancing. Nymph()maniac feels a lot tamer than the punishing Anti-Christ, that’s for sure. However, just because it’s not controversial in a sex-type way, doesn’t mean there’s not a lot going on underneath its foreskin (sorry, couldn’t help it. I seem to have dicks on the brain).
The movie is split into two parts, with a framing device draped over it; Stellan Skarsgard plays a man who happens upon a woman, the androgynously named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lying in the street, broken and bleeding. He takes her back to his home and she tells him the tale of how she got there. She tells him what a horrible person she is, a nymphomaniac that has traded away the things a normal person loves in pursuit of that feeling between her legs, or perhaps filling some hole in her heart. He responds with his own strange dialogue, quid pro quoing her anecdotes with his thoughts on things like fly fishing and Bach fugues.
Part One deals with her younger years, where she’s also played by Stacy Martin. Part Two picks up the story a little later in life, with Gainsbourg taking over the older version of the character, on a collision course with her fate. Part One is definitely the better half in my estimation; though it’s uneven in places, it’s got more story, more humour, more going on in general. Part two takes a turn for the darker, which is fine, but the anecdotes seems to drag a lot. I should throw in here, that all the acting was very well done, even Shay LeBeef.
There’s a visual vibrancy to the film as different imagery punctuates the story, sometimes betraying the fact that Von Trier, ever the serious filmmaker, might have a sense of humour. Sometimes these visual gags bring the film to life, sometimes they feel superfluous. Indeed, while a lot of the themes are serious and explore the human condition in excellent ways, there are some very (darkly) funny moments. Uma Thurman in particular is hilarious, and probably the most unforgettable scene in the movie as she bursts into Joe’s apartment, kids in tow, to scream at her husband, who has designs on leaving her for Joe. “Can I show the children the whoring bed?” she screams. It’s definitely over the top, but it’s uproarious.
In terms of the sex scenes, digitally enhanced stunt groins and porn actor doubles were employed. [Insert joke about Shia LeBeauf plagiarizing other people’s dicks]. But even with all these ‘bad’ people with seedy lifestyles, sympathies are found. Questions of deviance and decency are asked. What right does society have to judge Joe? If she were a man, would she be a stud, not a whore? There’s even a defense of pedophiles, those that don’t act on their urges (which is probably the most controversial view in the film). Von Trier is exploring societal deviance and expectations here, making this more about him than about the characters.
Nymph()maniac is more than the sordid story of a nymphomaniac. It’s not even about sex, really. It’s about longing, oppression, being muzzled, and being free. It’s really the story of Lars Von Trier himself; its characters are half-shrouded avatars for his own feelings on the limitations and boundaries of society, or conversely, the freedom to be who he wants to be, to say what he wants to say. He’s not as brilliant as he thinks he is, but he is very smart, and while those who aren’t Von Trier fans will certainly not be converted by this movie, most of it is enjoyable and thought-provoking to those, like myself, that do enjoy this maverick filmmaker’s voice. He’s always been a provoker. One who likes to poke others in the eyeballs. This time, he’s just using dicks to do it.