REVIEW: ‘Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1’ Explores the Meaning of Feelings
I divide feature-length motion pictures into three categories: movies, which are what the studios make for the most part; film, which is David O. Russell, PT Anderson, Woody Allen, et al., and just about everything at festivals like Sundance; cinema, which is the more transcendent work of auteurs like Won Kar Wai and Terrence Malick, which breaks convention with a singular vision but still retains the cohesiveness of narrative entertainment. Lars von Trier falls into the cinema category, and his Nymphomaniac is an instant-classic example of my definition.
(There is a fourth category, fine-art film, which is long-form filmed art made by the likes of Peter Greenaway and Matthew Barney; Greenaway used to make cinema, which is to say his films once had some form of cohesive narrative structure, but he seems to have abandoned that altogether recently. Fine-art films are also financed differently, through art-world patronage, although Greenaway in the past few years has burned more than a few normal industry investors, who were expecting a return on investment theatrically and instead basically got installations in galleries/special events.)
There are elements of Greenaway’s work in Nymphomaniac, primarily the reference to books and music, the insertion of graphic imagery within live-action footage to illustrate points made by the twin narrative voices: the titular nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her rescuer Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård).
Von Trier not only adheres to strict rules of narrative, he is almost mathematical in his dramatic composition. Perhaps the most meta moment in the film is in the final chapter of Vol. 1 — there is a Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2 I haven’t seen yet — when Joe compares her life to a Bach polyphony, a composition that uses layers of voices that are related harmonically and are part of the same piece, yet are otherwise independent from each other. You realize that von Trier has been employing this polyphonic device all along in the film’s narrative and characters, with mastery, to great effect.
Just as with 12 Years a Slave, which is not cinema but film (it’s too linear, un-layered and mono-thematic for true cinema), there is no liking or disliking Nymphomaniac. Its importance as a superbly crafted piece of cinema — the themes it addresses, the complex layers upon which those themes are addressed, the style of language and visual composition that is so classicist it’s modernist — obviates opinions like good or bad, like or dislike. It is a masterpiece, one that will perhaps destroy itself in the second part; still, I feel confident making the masterpiece declaration from what I’ve already seen in the first.
After an intro on black screen that plays with and distorts your perception of where certain sounds originate, Seligman discovers Joe horrendously battered in a theatrically designed and lit alleyway. Refusing hospital treatment or police help, Joe asks for a simple cup of tea at his place. Once she is safely in bed with her tea in his apartment, Seligman pulls up a chair and pries out her story with no great difficulty; Joe is eager to confess, and Seligman is the sort of father confessor or therapist onto whom one feels obliged to unburden. But her story is a long one, a philosophically complex one, one that begins in early childhood. “When I was two,” Joe begins, “I discovered my cunt.”
At this moment, Joe becomes Queen Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights, telling the story of her life in chapters, fed and inspired by Seligman’s interjections and non-judgmental observations about how her actions relate to mankind’s interactions with the natural world. There are also undertones of De Sade, specifically Philosophy in the Bedroom; metaphysical questions arise from Joe’s actions and interactions, questions specifically about love, relationships, and the meaning of feelings, and whether they have any meaning at all. Seligman repeatedly makes symbolic references to fly fishing and the creation of nymph flies from feathers that are designed to deceive fish, which are pointedly meant to represent the men Joe preys upon.
Nymphomaniac is the most like some of my own work that von Trier has made to date, specifically the discarding of bourgeois moralities regarding sex and interpersonal relationships in an attempt to arrive at a fundamental truth about us as evolved animals, as fundamentally base creatures that simply are endowed with often-burdensome conscientiousness and complex, ever-changing, ever-evolving feelings.
I have copped out of critiques of certain movies, all of them in the cinema category, by saying I could write entire chapters about individual aspects and themes. I say the same now about Nymphomaniac; for instance, Joe’s repulsion about men who eat rugelach with a pastry fork, how a single detail can turn you off a potential lover. I will reject a perfectly eligible lover, someone most other Gheys I know would kill to sleep with even once, simply based on his t-shirt. Yes, I could write an article just on that. And Nymphomaniac is a stream that burbles excitedly over many such subjects, all of which deserve treatment I cannot give here.
Specifically, Nymphomaniac is most in spirit like my much-storied, as-yet-unproduced Hatter. Like Joe exploring the outer realms of her sexual limits to arrive at a truth about who she is, I spent almost all of 2002 doing the same thing, except my exploration included copious amounts of sexually stimulating drugs, and the recording and analysis of my dreams. I taught myself to lucid dream, and with the help of the stimulus of pleasure and drugs induced a false psychosis, under which I wrote the script. One of the reasons I did this is the project was so delirious that I was afraid of it and could only approach it in a state of extreme intoxication, all inhibitions shed. (I have since become less of a pussy, a confidence that has evolved as I, like Joe, have discovered who I truly am.)
Many gay men will identify with Joe; perhaps that’s why she’s given a man’s name. Most women will not. Straight men wish women were more like Joe, and for expressing that fantasy von Trier should be dragged into an alley by a mob of feminists and beaten within an inch of his life with dialectic. But from a Ghey’s standpoint, he has made a film that speaks to a metaphysical journey in search of ourselves through random sex on which many of us have been, but which few of us have understood is a metaphysical journey at all. For instance, during the creation of Hatter, in January of 2002 I had sex with over one hundred and twenty different men in just that one month. This is somewhat less that Joe’s average of seven men per day, but it is still on a par. So I have been on this character’s great sexual odyssey, and I vouch that the film’s portrayal of her emotions and reasons for her actions is valid and authentic.
As we writers of authentic, experience-based entertainment tend to do, von Trier has split his personality into two: Seligman is the anxious intellectual version of von Trier, the weirdo who refuses to fly in a plane, and spoils himself and exasperates his crew with other charming eccentricities; Joe is the feral, sensualist bad-boy von Trier who takes perverse pleasure in upsetting his cast, his peers and colleagues, the press that adores him, the crypto-bourgeois prestige-film-festival officials who have helped create his dazzling career.
The script is written in a deliberately arcane style that often appears stilted, but is actually a nod to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and plays. The setting is in an analog, pre-digital age in Britain; I believe it begins in the late 80s/early 90s, but flashes back to the 70s. Its time setting pays homage to sexual-revolution-era European and Asian erotic films, like the Emmanuelle series, In the Realm of the Senses and Pasolini’s Cantebury Tales, Decameron, and Arabian Nights.
The performances are important, and much of the film ebbs and flows on the strength of individual actors and their ability to cope with the subtle intensity of what von Trier is trying to achieve. Many of the more warty moments in the acting are smoothed over by that particular Zentropa/Dogme 95 handheld-camera style, by those voyeuristic angles, those sneaky jump cuts that feel so much like savesƒ.
Skarsgård and Gainsbourg are their usual selves, which is never unpleasant. I find Gainsbourg’s naturalism and fearlessness mesmerizing; it’s clear she cares about the truth of the performance more than the act of being in a film — that impresses her not a bit; it’s irrelevant. The challenge for both of them is they have little to do in the way of action, in Vol. 1 at least. In that respect, they are the First and Second Voice in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, wandering among the characters and the narrative commenting on it, but never a part of it.
I am not a Shia LaBeouf detractor. Far from it. I take a rather paternalistic view of his progress as an artist, as someone who is bucking Hollywood because he can and it should be bucked. In this sense he is akin to 70s actors like Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper. He’s goosing Marina Abramovic, and I like that. But he isn’t a great actor, at least not yet. A mark of a great actor isn’t whether he can mimic accents, although that is certainly a strength to have. LaBeouf’s British accent is all over the place. He begins with a sort of working-class mockney, then veers to mock-Received Prounciation when it turns out he’s actually middle class — although we only assume he isn’t as middle class as Joe because of the silly mockney accent — and that mock-RP crashes into Australian every now and then. It’s a complete mess. But he is still good in the role; he is also truthful, that seems to be something von Trier demands and gets from all his cast.
While Gainsbourg mostly lies in bed and sips tea, Stacy Martin carries the true load of Joe’s actions, playing the titular character as a younger woman in flashbacks. Martin is so much like Gainsbourg’s real mother, Jane Birkin, at that age it’s almost freaky. I had a hard time buying into Martin’s sugary ingénue, with that Lolita-lollipop delivery, until I decided that it was an homage to the performativity of femininity in that era. In any case it stops being so sugary during the “Delirium” chapter in the last half, when her performance goes from being a chocolate fountain and develops some real grit.
Christian Slater is a revelation, a welcome one. If his management is clever, they will build on this to McConaughey his career. (Yes, after McC’s spectacular run over the past couple of years, his last name has become a verb in the business.) Uma Thurman chokes you, in a good way, in her brief appearance as a jilted Medea, a classical character with whom both von Trier and I are fascinated; one of my favorite films of his is an adaptation of the Euripides play, and I staged a fairly subversive production of it in college.
I don’t agree with von Trier on a couple of minor philosophical points, foremost amongst which is that poetry and empiricism aren’t mutually exclusive, but I see his point of view. I had a major issue with how Vol. 1 ends, with a cliché about highly sexual people that borders on a lie. Is it lazy? I find that hard to believe given the astounding inventiveness and surprisingness in the way the story is told overall, with those intricately interwoven themes, devices, narratives and characters, with all of those layers that make it great cinema.
Like many, I can’t wait to see the second half, which I’ll write about next week. As the self-proclaimed “best director in the world,” von Trier can behave like a dick, but he really is the best. His work is consistently true cinema, never crap. I left Antichrist, which it’s safe to say I loathed, bellowing, “He’s a fucking madman,” but underlying that bellow was admiration and acknowledgement that if there is one hero I should allow myself — and I gave up heroes forever five years ago — it is he.