Sunday, 23 February 2014

Review: Nymph()maniac (2014) Lars von Trier

Coming (there's no doubt going to plenty of these puns...) in with the wave of controversy that almost any Lars von Trier film achieves, the two-part 4 hour+ Nymph()maniac is set to divide audiences in the same way the story is split - right down the middle.
Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found lying blooded and battered in an alley by bookworm Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He takes her to his grotty, stained apartment to clean her up, and offers a friendly ear for her to offload her woes as she sees herself as a terrible person who deserves everything she got. So, over the course of the two films she recounts her life story and her obsession with carnal desire. From her earliest feelings 'down there', the young Joe (played by newcomer - so to speak - Stacy Martin) decides on the person to take her virginity - an older boy, Jerôme (Shia LeBeouf), whose influence and entanglement in her life is profound.
Along with her best friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), she experiments with her sexuality. Having contests to sleep with the most people on a train (the winner gets a bag of chocolate sweets) to forming a militant group whose agenda is purely based on the enjoyment of sex. She's appalled when B reveals she has slept with the same person three times (something against their rules), and even more horrified when she confides that the "secret to better sex is love".
The only love she has felt at this point is from her father (Christian Slater), a nature loving doctor who teaches her the beauty of trees and whose death forms the most harrowing moment of the film. But it's the re-emergence of Jerôme at key moments in her life that shapes her 'real life' destiny in many ways.
Listening to the stories throughout, and providing occasional digressions of his own, Seligman is the perfect confessor; a middle-aged virgin whose life has been lived through the words of others. Firstly, there are some incredibly controversial moments, but, coming after the relaxing of the way films are censored in the UK, are not as outrageous as one would imagine. Erections, genitalia close-ups and real sex have all lost their long held taboo status in the movies; although it is still only 'art house' films that tend to get away with them. The real shocking moments come from the frankness of the monologues and in the form of the story involving Billy Elliot himself, Jamie Bell. It's Bell's professional masochist K who elicits the most negative response from the audience, as the scenes of flagellation are more graphic and sickening than any of the sticky encounters Joe recounts (although the silent duck which ends that chapter is brilliantly funny).
In among the tales of lust there are several moments of great situational humour. Uma Thurman's showstopping scene as the wife of a conquest who has taken Joe's attention a little too seriously is superb. A planned threesome with a pair of non-English speaking Africans fails to happen when the brothers end up arguing (with the viewer just left to watch a giant pair of erect penises; almost the definition of a cock fight). Udo Kier and Willem Dafoe are on screen far too little, but both have a glorious impact. As do the occasional visual flourishes von Trier adopts to illustrate certain moments.
The climax (erm...) will divide the audience too, but does work perfectly (although no doubt many will reference the Woody Allen gag in Play It Again, Sam (1972).
The standout performance must be Stacy Martin, who as the young Joe steals the first film and provides a brilliantly naturalistic performance. We will no doubt see more of her in the future (ahem...)
Quite why the film is being released in a split Kill Bill style format, I really don't know. This isn't a multiplex film (which, let's be honest are actually quite used to the idea of a long film) and those seeking to see it are really being duped into buying two tickets. Of course, a four hour film is a hard sell, but it's not aimed at a mainstream audience.
I was lucky enough to see both films back to back, with a question and answer session streamed from London to cinemas up and down the country. Without giving any spoilers (Skarsgård's comments, while hilarious would unfortunately ruin the end), Stacy Martin revealed the wonders of the CGI department managed to make it appear that she had, in fact, had sex on screen. They did touch on von Triers directorial style, and it appears he is a joy to work with. Much of his earlier work has its detractors, The Idiots (1998) is a particularly difficult film and Antichrist (2009) alienated much of its audience by throwing so much in your face. But when he's at his best, in films such as Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Melancholia (2011) - and, indeed, Nymph()maniac, he's a brilliantly inventive and compelling writer/director. Unlike his previous film, the aforementioned Melancholia, this is not meant to look good. Whereas that was full of stunning visuals, here it is grim, and rightfully so. This is sex, not as a pleasurable experience, but as addiction; and like with heroin and other drugs, it doesn't produce an attractive outcome. As Skarsgård said in the Q&A, this isn't a film that you can jerk off to.  

For those interested here's the uncut, not suitable for kids trailer :

Nymphomaniac Official Trailer from Zentropa on Vimeo.

8 out of 10 (rated as the two films together)

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