Lars Von Trier’s wild, sprawling ‘Nymphomaniac’ is an orgy of the sublime and the ridiculous. It exists in two versions of differing lengths and explicitness. This is the first episode of a shorter, cleaner version (still, it’s unlikely to play in Dubai or Idaho). It opens with a disclaimer stating that the director wasn’t involved in the editing – although it has been cut with his permission from the longer, Lars-approved film. You feel short-changed: whose film is it then? What am I missing? Bigger cocks? More close-ups of injured, over-exercised clitorises? Oh yes, there’s nothing coy about it.
‘Nymphomaniac’ is the story – over several decades – of one woman, Joe’s self-destructive sex life, first as a young girl, then in her teens and twenties (played by dazzling newcomer Stacy Martin) and later middle-aged (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s framed by Joe in the present (Gainsbourg) recalling her life to a man (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds her crumpled and bloodied in an alleyway and takes her back to his place to recover. We cut from this long, dark night of Joe baring her soul in this bookish virgin’s sparse flat to flashes of her past, including her early discovery of her sexuality (‘I discovered my c*nt as a two-year-old’) and youthful tallies of sexual conquests.
Chaotic and not especially pretty, the film has more of the punkish, radical spirit of Von Trier’s ‘The Idiots’ or ‘Dogville’ than the gloss or contained drama of ‘Melancholia’ or ‘Antichrist’ – although the nominal British setting and interest in religion and a promiscuous woman nod to ‘Breaking the Waves’ too.
There’s plenty of flesh (much of it belonging to porn doubles), although the film is rarely, if ever, what most people would call erotic or pornographic. It’s neither deeply serious nor totally insincere; hovering somewhere between the two, it creates its own mesmerising power by floating above specifics of time and place, undercutting its main focus with bizarre digressions (fly-fishing, maths, religion), a ragbag of acting styles and archive footage. There’s humour too, not least when the wife (Uma Thurman) of one of Joe’s lovers turns up at Joe’s flat with her three young kids in tow. Enormous penises flash across the screen; tragedy sits next to comedy. It feels like an X-rated farce, a circus of genitalia.
‘Which way will you get the most out of my story?’ asks Joe. ‘By believing in it? Or not believing in it?’ It’s this sort of narrative playfulness that keeps you close and keeps you guessing – even if it also stops Von Trier from doing anything as conservative or reassuring as offering a clear opinion or coherent perspective via his teasing scrapbook of sexual adventure.
Read the review of Nymphomaniac: Part Two