Spoilers throughout. Be warned.
“I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old,” says Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe a few minutes into Lars von Trier’s new film, NYMPH()MANIAC. Forgive the language — but if part of the purpose of reading criticism is to assess what one might want to see or read, it’s important to be upfront: this is an extremely graphic film, sexually. Still, if you enter Joe’s story with the open-mindedness of her samaritan-confessor, Stellan Skarsgård, there’s much to enjoy.
Trailer just about safe for work — but careful what you google:
The story is simple: Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is discovered unconscious and badly injured at the start of the film by the kindly Seligman (Skarsgård). She won’t permit him to call an ambulance or the police so they return to his home, where he puts her to bed and makes her tea. Joe makes a reference to being a bad human being. “I’ve never met a bad human being,” replies Seligman. Joe: “You have now”. The rest of Vol. I — and one assumes a sizeable portion of Vol. II — amounts to an exploration of Joe’s perceived sin through a documenting of her complete carnal history from infancy to early adulthood. The younger Joe, who dominates Vol. I, is played by excellent newcomer Stacy Martin.
The cast list is a testament to von Trier’s international reputation. Christian Slater, Shia LaBeouf, Connie Nielsen and House of SpeakEasy regular Uma Thurman join the cast of Vol. I, while Vol. II will also feature Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe and Udo Kier. Thurman, who plays Mrs. H, has my favourite cameo in Vol. I. In a marvellously surreal sequence, she follows her unfaithful husband to Joe’s apartment trailing their three children, demanding that they be allowed to see “the whoring bed”. “Boys,” she addresses them — (in their innocence they look vaguely like WW2 evacuees) — “Now is the time to be alert and ask all the questions your hearts desire.” It’s textbook von Trier: a near anti-performance that, in its strangeness and staginess, somehow manages to reveal more than a dozen ‘naturalistic’ performances. Brilliant right hook too.
NYMPH()MANIAC is also a religious film. Gainsbourg’s Joe is obsessed with sin, what the irreligious Seligman calls “the most unsympathetic concept in religion”. The whole movie reverberates with biblical resonances. Joe’s childhood, represented mostly by the time she spent in the forest with her father (Slater), is Edenic; Seligman’s taking her in recalls the good samaritan; and rarely has a cinematic character seemed to crave redemption as ferociously as Joe. If depression is an experience of meaninglessness, NYMPH()MANIAC represents an at least pseudo-religious search for meaning.
The film ends with Joe and Jerôme in bed together. Suddenly she cries out, “I can’t feel anything! I can’t feel anything. I can’t feel anything…” This seems to mark the point where the coy, sometimes humorous Martin becomes the darker, more haunted Gainsbourg. The trailer for Vol. II certainly hints at darker turns ahead…