“Hey Joe, where are you going…?”: Lars von Trier’s NYMPH()MANIAC, Vol. II

NymphomaniacSPOILERS throughout! Also, well worth seeing Vol. I, which I reviewed here, before seeing Vol. II, which offers no recap for the uninitiated.

NYMPH()MANIAC Vol. II is a fist to the throat, a film raw with despair. It picks up where Vol. I left off, with Joe’s anguish over her sudden loss of sexual feeling, and documents the lengths to which she goes to feed her mania and achieve a sense of wholeness. Vol. II is the evil twin of Vol. IA.O. Scott in the New York Times wrote that Vol. I is “(relatively speaking) the fun part”. Well, the playfulness and humour are largely gone, replaced with scenes of such deep unpleasantness that one of my fellow audience members was moved to say Damn! five times over the course of the film.

Monogamy with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) and motherhood have left Joe (Stacy Martin, then Charlotte Gainsbourg) unfulfilled. Her sexual appetites grow more extreme and more niche. She decides at first that she must attempt sex without possible recourse to verbal communication, and manages to procure a couple of African men (Kookie Ryan and Papou) from the street opposite her flat. Still not satisfied, she applies to become the object in a sadomasochistic salon run by the colourless, ascetic K (Jamie Bell, outstanding), who ties her up and lashes her but refuses any (so-called) conventional sexual contact. Her relationship with K ruins forever her life with Jerôme and their infant son, Marcel, while her pursuits at work result in her losing her job. She attends group therapy for sex addiction, refusing at first to refer to herself as an addict rather than a nymphomaniac. Increasingly marginalised, Joe slides into a new existence as a nefarious debt collector, exploiting debtors’ sexualities to achieve her ends. Her sinister boss, L (Willem Dafoe), encourages her to take on a young protégée, P (Mia Goth), which she does. Joe and P become lovers. One night, approaching their next job, Joe realises that she must collect an unpaid debt from Jerôme, whom she hasn’t seen for many years. The events that follow explain how she came to be lying beaten in the alley where Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) found her at the start of Vol. I.

As in Vol. I, the relationship between Joe and Seligman is essentially sinner-confessor. Early on, we are told that Seligman is a virgin: “I’m innocent,” he claims, making explicit a link between sex and guilt that haunts the film. This is why, Joe believes, he is incapable of seeing her actions for what they are — he cannot relate to them. In a series of intertextual readings of Joe’s story, he interprets and transposes, veering into psychoanalytic, artistic and religious territory, often all at once. When Joe recalls an orgasm as a twelve-year-old that was accompanied by a religious vision, Seligman identifies the figures Joe sees as Valeria Messalina (the promiscuous wife of Emperor Claudius) and the Whore of Babylon. Later, she recalls Marcel’s birth, the baby grinning at her as he was delivered; Seligman, recalling Noah’s son Ham, insists this is another demonic omen.

Von Trier also plays intertextual games. Joe’s recollection of how she “became the piano teacher” is surely a nod to Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, which has its own sadomasochistic protagonist. He also stages a sequence in which Marcel escapes his cot, much as Gainsbourg and Dafoe’s son in Antichrist did before falling to his death from a window at the start of that film. Von Trier even sets it to the same piece of music, Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga”, which I confess gave me a rather sick feeling.

There’s also the canny, unsettling use of Mozart’s Requiem in the Chapter 7 sequence when Joe attempts to remove or obscure everything that reminds her of sex from her flat: door knobs, paintings, light switches, books, her telephone, mirrors, taps…

NYMPH()MANIAC is as intellectually provocative as any of von Trier’s work. He probes boundaries surrounding discourse on race, gender politics and even paedophilia (the ninety-five percent of paedophiles who don’t act on their urges “deserve a bloody medal”, says Joe). The acting and narrative style flirt with a kind of improvised amateurishness similar to that which marked the excellent Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. Accents and filming locations have no regard for continuity. It’s unclear when the story is supposed to be set. The dialogue is weirdly literary. Beyond all that, the film occasionally veers into fantasy (as when the twelve-year-old Joe levitates while orgasming). In all these ways and more, von Trier presents major aesthetic challenges to the prevalent naturalism in cinema.

His work has always had this Brechtian flavour, and it feels particularly developed in NYMPH()MANIAC. When Joe hits out at her new sex-addict colleagues at therapy, she attacks the bourgeois values they seek to serve in punishing themselves for their desires. The film itself — in flirting with a pornographic mode of representation — attacks the bourgeois values of Hollywood entertainment. It won’t be to everyone’s taste; it’s often pretty visceral stuff. But as an exploration of human desire and sexuality — as well as loneliness and despair — I struggle to think of a more stimulating or fertile text, all puns intended.

And I don’t want to ruin the end, but that’s a whole other story too.

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

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.

The Luminous Uma Thurman

In 1991 the New York Times marked the “earth-shattering news” that Pauline Kael was retiring by interviewing her. The great iconoclast of film criticism, whose put-downs made her unpopular with publicists but delighted readers of the New Yorker for more than twenty years, nevertheless found much to admire in the latest crop of Hollywood stars. She listed among her favourites Tim Robbins, Annette Bening, Uma Thurman, John Cusack and Wesley Snipes. That this is a list of some of the most significant screen actors of the two decades since Kael’s retirement is a testament to her uncannily splendid taste. That it features one of the special guest hosts for the House of SpeakEasy’s opening gala — Uma Thurman — is merely delightful coincidence!

On the night of the gala, Uma Thurman will be leading guests through “The Tip of My Tongue”. The Oscar-nominated actress will read out selections from three mystery books, all carefully chosen to reflect the theme of the evening (“Plays With Matches”),  and invite the audience to identify the title, the author, and the decade in which the books were written. The winner will receive signed books from the authors appearing at the gala.

Thurman began her acting career at seventeen, four years before her anointment by Kael. In those early years she had a small part in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, narrowly escaped a starring role in Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and fell for the insidious charms of John Malkovich’s Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. She was also well reviewed for her performance in Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June, in which she played June Miller, wife of Tropic of Cancer author Henry, caught up in the sexual machinations of her husband and Anaïs Nin in 1930s Paris.

And then came Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction.

Its “154 deliciously lurid minutes” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone) probably contain a higher concentration of iconic moments and dialogue than any movie since Francis Ford Coppola’s run of masterpieces in the 1970s. But ask pretty much anyone which scene they found most memorable, and it’s the dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where Thurman and John Travolta boogie on down to Chuck Berry. At my secondary school the VHS of Pulp Fiction circulated faster than rumour and everyone was doing this dance. I realise now, rewatching it, that my every move even today is a shameless plagiarism.

Thurman followed an Oscar nomination for Pulp Fiction with significant performances in The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996), Gattaca (1997), Les Misérables (1998) and the TV movie Hysterical Blindness (2002), which won her a Golden Globe. And then QT came a-knocking once more.

Warning: violence and language (arguably my favourite MPAA euphemism) follow.

Kill Bill, Thurman’s next collaboration with Tarantino, won her more accolades, including two further Golden Globe nominations. As with her Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, her performance as the Bride/Beatrix Kiddo was immediately iconic. Aside from the physical demands of the role — exemplified by this brilliant clip from the start of Vol. 1 — the Bride showcased Thurman’s facility in tragedy. The great anagnorisis in Kill Bill, when, more than three hours into the story, she comes face to face with the infant daughter she had presumed dead, is profoundly moving. No mean feat in a film characterised by its extravagant stylistic effects and fantastic violence.

The years since have given us Be Cool (2005), Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010), Bel Ami (2012), and an Emmy nomination for Thurman’s guest role in NBC’s Smash.

But what’s next?

Now I’m a big fan of Lars von Trier but I will concede that he hardly rules over a land of critical consensus. Nevertheless, his next film, NYMPH()MANIAC (warning: link probably NSFW), to be released in the US in two parts (on March 21 and April 18 respectively), has received excellent early reviews. Based on five of these, Metacritic currently has NYMPH()MANIAC: Volume 1 scoring at 80% while Rotten Tomatoes, from eight reviews, rates it 100% fresh. Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent picks out Thurman’s “tremendous” performance, Todd McCarthy calls her “ferocious”, while the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks opts for a laconic but vivid “electrifying”. Can’t wait.

We are delighted that Uma Thurman is joining us for our sold-out opening gala at City Winery on January 27. Please click here to buy tickets for our February 24 show, “This Is Not A Man”, featuring Tom Reiss, Jeff McDaniel, Anton Sword and Dana Vachon.