Joe: Fill all my holes, please.
There is a disclaimer at the very onset of NYMPHOMANIAC, Lars von Trier’s controversial 4-hour epic about one woman’s sexual affliction, that states quite cheekily that von Trier gave his permission to make this cut of the film, which was originally over five hours long, but was not involved in its construction. This makes it very difficult to know whose film it is I’m judging really, as we cannot know if this truly comes close to matching von Trier’s original vision for the film. Regardless, I must judge all the same, and there is plenty to be judged here, primarily because von Trier practically begs you to judge his heroine from start to finish.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, a von Trier staple at this point, having played in his last three films, including the brilliant MELANCHOLIA, plays Joe. She is found in the street, beaten to the brink of death, by a passerby named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who invites her back to his place for some tea and some rest. Once there, she proceeds to share her entire life story, framed by the context of her consuming sexuality, and broken up into convenient if not contrived chapters that find their titles in the ordinary objects found scattered around Seligman’s home. She states that hers is a story of morality and that she considers herself to be a horrible human being. We as an audience are placed in Seligman’s shoes and are asked to listen and make up our own minds about Joe and her supposedly bizarre behaviour. As she prattles on about when she first discovered her vagina at age 6, when she first had sex (with a disappointing lover played by the no longer famous, Shia LaBeouf) and eventually how she came to the worst times of her life, when she lost her orgasm, we must decide, as von Trier has challenged us to do so, whether we too think of her as deplorable, and this is supposed to in turn make us question our own views on sex. Only, von Trier does’t allow us to do too much of our own thinking here. Just in case there is a chance we might get it wrong, he deliberately points out to us that were this story being told by a man, we might not think anything of it at all, as if that approach is some sort of revelation. He even juxtaposes his supposed sexual deviant opposite an asexual virgin (Skarsgård) to further drill his point into our minds and loins.
Von Trier, while controlled and deliberate as a filmmaker, uncharacteristically lacks confidence here. He is constantly drawing our attention to the metaphors in the film and inconsistencies in the story, as if by acknowledging them himself, we cannot then criticize him for them. While some will find this playfulness to be quite droll, I just found it to be lazy and grating. By the time NYMPHOMANIAC reaches its conclusion four hours later, it has become predictable and borderline tedious, which when it comes to sex, or even movies about sex, are essentially the last things you want to be feeling.
This review was originally written for Exclaim! and it appears here in an expanded version with their permission.