“Go for the pleasure first, always”: Lars von Trier’s NYMPH()MANIAC, Vol. I

Written by Charles Arrowsmith

Posted on March 24, 2014

Filed Under: Blog

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:

NYMPH()MANIAC is the third film in von Trier’s informal trilogy on the theme of depression that began with Antichrist (2009) and was followed by Melancholia (2011). Like its predecessors, NYMPH()MANIAC features a hyper-stylised opening sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film. First we see nothing — but we hear the drip-drip-trickle of rainwater and the distant sound of trains. Then the opening shot, a deserted alleyway, played in silence. A series of beautiful close-ups follow, sound reattached: rain falling on dustbin lids, an abysmal vent in a grimy wall. Cut to a wide shot of Gainsbourg lying wounded and unconscious, and a stunning, abrupt blast of Rammstein on the soundtrack, reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s use of Naked City at the start of Funny Games (1997/2007). In this way the world of the film sharpens the senses. Throughout there are sudden irruptions of music, strange silences (note the almost total lack of ambience in Skarsgård’s home), and aural close-ups on rustling leaves in Joe’s forest and the squelchy rutting that characterises many of the sex scenes. Visually, von Trier uses different types of video, different aspect ratios, archive footage, genital close-ups, handheld camera, jump cuts… It can truly be called a dynamic movie.

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.

Many reviewers have defended the film against allegations of pornography on the grounds that it’s wholly unerotic. This is a subjective and weirdly defensive position to take, and I’m not sure von Trier would care anyway. Pornographic or not, the film is undoubtedly deeply philosophical, covering off anthropology, entomology, mathematics and music in its two hours’ traffic. One superb sequence constructs a kind of music, borrowing from Bach’s Little Organ Book (pun surely intended), out of the significance Joe places on three of her many sexual partners. Elsewhere, Seligman, seeing metaphor where perhaps he needn’t always, makes much of the recurrence of Fibonacci numbers in Joe’s story. (They are at least a very good model for her list of conquests.) Sex becomes almost algebraic during the course of the film, aided by Joe’s tendency to refer to characters by initial letters (A, B, K, Mrs. H, etc) and the superimposition of equations on the action. Significant are “those two humiliating numbers” — three and five — that represent the unmomentous loss of her virginity to Jerôme (LaBeouf).

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…

If you want to read more about the films of Lars von Trier, Linda Badley’s excellent short book about his cinema is the place to start.

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