Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 comes to theaters tomorrow, with Vol. 2 following shortly in April.
This review is for both films.
Lars von Trier’s filmography can best be described as a series of provocations. Misogynistic. Racist. Bigot. These words are often drawn upon to describe Trier and his work. Regardless of the man’s inclinations, these descriptors are often deployed without an understanding of how Trier utilizes hypersexuality, spiritual perversity, and absurdism to elicit a response from his audience. Trier provokes through blunt force, but it’s a sort of primal force that has an inherent cinematic quality. It often makes for some incredibly awkward but perpetually compelling cinema. There’s one other writer/director who shares a similar penchant for provoking audiences: Quentin Tarantino.
Beyond the superficial volume comparison between Trier’s Nymphomaniac and Tarantino’s Kill Bill (along with sharing Uma Thurman in both features), the two pictures share some overlap in their treatment of sexuality and violence. In Tarantino’s films, sexuality is hidden by violence; notions of gender and sex are largely absent and in the limited space that they do intervene, it’s a concept immediately dispensed with (such as the Buck sequence at the beginning of Kill Bill Vol. 1). Comparatively, it’s in Trier’s work that one sees sexuality utilized as a tool of violence.
The image of a narrow alleyway bookends Nymphomaniac. Finding Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten body, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) offers to house the woman. A line of questioning between the two commences as Joe shares her tale of woe while Seligman attempts to rationalize her exploits as a natural, biological function. Trier structures the film in chapter format, where Joe recounts her childhood and development as a sexual creature. The conversation between Joe and Seligman interjects sparingly, most often sprinkled as voiceover throughout the narrative. It’s a twisted life that Joe leads, particularly in her coming-of-age where Young Joe (Stacy Martin) competes with a friend for the most sexual conquests aboard a train.
What makes a scene like the above work so well, both in content and in sustaining tone, is the explicit comic sensibility that Trier adopts. The two films, particularly Vol. 1, are very funny. Trier’s gifts as a visual storyteller are some of the chief pleasures to Nymphomaniac - from quick cuts to a chalkboard keeping score of the aforementioned conquests to calculating the amount of thrusts it takes a man from deflowering a virgin, Trier is capable of cutting through the staunchest of scenes with an air of prankster comedy. It’s a completely different tonal approach compared to the thematically similar Shame. Yet, arguably, it’s in Trier’s ability to infuse his material with both dramatic and comic sensibilities that affords Nymphomaniac a clearer sense of truth.
Unlike the aforementioned Kill Bill films, however, Nymphomaniac is best seen as a singular effort rather than separate volumes. Neither film could possibly work without their other halve. The lighter Vol. 1 lacks the spiritual gravitas that Trier tends to utilize throughout his films (particularly Breaking the Waves), whereas most of that sensibility is allocated to pieces of Vol. 2. The second portion lacks some of the visceral thrills and exploratory concepts that are addressed so humorously in Vol. 1. And together, the two pictures unite in a rich thematic experience. For example, the culminating scene between Joe and Seligman relies on the viewer’s abilities to recall on the anxieties that develop between the two to work effectively. A lapse in time between viewings could hinder the strength of the momentous revelation between the two.
Trier naysayers are unlikely to be swayed by the director’s explicitness and need for provocation. It’s arguably just as wrenching as Antichrist though significantly less abstract. The familiar chapter structure provides a very digestible entryway into Trier’s canon - despite the content this remains, at least narratively, to be the director’s most accessible works.