A XXX-rated "My Night at Maud's"? An imagined meeting between Sigmund Freud and the Whore of Babylon? There are so many ways of looking at and thinking about Lars von Trier's two-part "Nymphomaniac" that one scarcely knows where to begin. Nor is von Trier himself doing anything to help: Supposedly still on a self-imposed media hiatus two years on from his controversial "Melancholia" press conference in Cannes, the director hasn't been giving any interviews to promote his new film, while a press release announcing the film's forthcoming U.S. distribution (set for the spring of this year) came accompanied with an impish photo of Trier, his mouth sealed shut with electrical tape.
But maybe von Trier simply doesn't have anything to say that isn't already there on the screen in his four-hour, ferociously entertaining magnum opus, which may be the most purely personal film he has ever made -- the one richest in his personal obsessions and its allusions to other texts (including several of von Trier's own). From start to finish, this shape-shifting, palimpsestic, carnal and intellectual thrill ride of a movie feels like the work of an artist explaining himself and all his influences and aspirations, even as he burrows deeper into them. And it is one of the movie's many sly jokes that viewers drawn in by the enticement of name actors engaging in hardcore sex (of which there is no shortage) will still find more talk than flesh -- talk of fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers, of the split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, of Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Mann, of Beethoven and Bach.
Von Trier's film is, by its own admission, a polyphonic work -- a veritable Brandenburg concerto of disparate genres and moods masterfully blended into a seamless whole. Repeatedly, tragedy somersaults into farce and back again, a coming-of-age story becomes an erotic melodrama and then a kind of gangster film, and Wagner gives way to the German heavy-metal band Rammstein on the soundtrack, while the images oscillate between color and black-and-white, live-action and animation, widescreen and standard aspect ratios. Perhaps that risks making "Nymphomaniac" sound like some unholy Baz Luhrmann/Peter Greenaway mash-up, but rather than taking glee in atonal chaos, von Trier's film is, in both content and form, a search for the harmonic interconnectedness of things -- specifically, how female sexuality might be a Rosetta Stone for decoding all of human endeavor (artistic, scientific, militaristic) down through the ages.
The movie is at once all over the map and all of a piece, brilliantly acted by Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin as the older and younger versions of the titular sex enthusiast -- the latest in Trier's expansive gallery of fallen angels who fear themselves to be sinners -- and Stellan Skarsgard as the virginal, "anti-Zionist Jew" who listens patiently to her tale, delicately leading the the narrative into its many exhilarating digressions.There is much more to say and, evidently, much more to see. Prefaced by a disclaimer, this "Nymphomaniac" purports to be a compromised version prepared for the film's December 2013 international release, with the extended, von Trier-certified cut of Vol. 1 scheduled to premiere in Berlin. I for one can't wait.
Like an issue of Playboy you read for the smut and the articles, Lars von Trier's indecently smart and provocative "Nymphomaniac" is predicated on the simple notion -- articulated by Raquel Welch, and familiar to devotees of D.H. Lawrence and E.L. James alike -- that the mind is one hell of an erogenous zone. Bring a trenchcoat to the theater if you must, but more importantly, put on your thinking cap: By turns playful and pedantic, far more invested in intellectual than erotic stimulation,this carnal epic -- a tightly focused, densely woven skein of literary, artistic, musical and cinematic allusions -- is a von Trier movie through and through, right down to its greatest-hits-style riffs on the director's own back catalog.
Such self-exploration, if you will, is hardly accidental, given that a bruised, bruising female sexuality has long been what von Trier's admirers (and I count myself among them) might call a Larsmotif. When Joe, the sex addict of the title, gets her husband's permission to stray beyond the marriage bed, it's hard not to be reminded of "Breaking the Waves," with Emily Watson acting out at the behest of a paralyzed Stellan Skarsgard (cast here as another effectively castrated male listener). And when Joe explores her desire for the Other with two African men, you may flash back to "Manderlay," which toyed no less daringly with the stereotype of the black male sexual aggressor. Even the chapter titled "Delirium," set in a hospital shot in gloomy monochrome, has a peculiar genesis in the director's oeuvre, playing like a less grisly outtake from his landmark 1994 TV series, "The Kingdom."
(While we're at it, why stop at von Trier's body of work? Joe's choice of profession at one point, set to the strains of "Fur Elise," suggests a tip of the auteur hat to Michael Haneke's psychosexual character study "The Piano Teacher." And the delicious manner in which Joe pulls together her story, improvising an intricate narrative from stray details of her bedroom decor, has all the conceptual bravura of "The Usual Suspects" -- and plays more fairly with the audience, to boot.)
But the most obvious forerunner here is "Antichrist," not only in the presence of a frequently nude, sexually rapacious and ever-fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg, but in the way von Trier boldly reproduces that film's Handel-scored prologue, which crudely linked female pleasure with maternal neglect. Here, mercifully, that simplistic equation is but one muted thread in a vast and varied consideration of one woman's prolific sexual history. For all its confrontational swagger and its tonal, formal and structural audacity, this is von Trier's nimblest, most controlled piece of filmmaking since "Dogville." And if it represents, at four hours, a compromised take on his original vision, it nonetheless has a remarkable lucidity -- as if von Trier, knowing he had a lot to say, was determined to say it as clearly and carefully as possible. (Could it be that the director, in relinquishing final cut, revealed himself as not the sharpest editor of his own material? Only the five-and-a-half-hour version will tell.)
In its own admittedly warm self-appraisal, "Nymphomaniac" is the rare movie that grants a woman the same rights to promiscuity as a man, and that has the guts to question the social and cinematic double standard that punishes two sexes so differently for the same behavior. Von Trier's previous film, "Melancholia," threw cold water on the heated accusations of misogyny that have dogged him all career long, and even with its most overtly Sadean episode, in which Gainsbourg gets flogged about the nether-regions with a riding crop, "Nymphomaniac" seems unlikely to revive that old canard. Its engagement with its subject -- by turns clinical, empathetic and finally all-consuming -- is too rich and uncompromising to be reduced to hatred, or to anything less than the sum of its marvelous, maddening parts.
With his sexually explicit, four-hour magnum opus "Nymphomaniac," world cinema's enfant terrible Lars von Trier re-emerges as its dirty-old-man terrible, delivering a dense, career-encompassing work designed to shock, provoke and ultimately enlighten a public he considers altogether too prudish. Racy subject aside, the film provides a good-humored yet serious-minded look at sexual self-liberation, thick with references to art, music, religion and literature, even as it pushes the envelope with footage of acts previously relegated to the sphere of pornography. Even so, in this cut of "Nymphomaniac," the only arousal von Trier intends is of the intellectual variety, making this philosophically rigorous picture -- which opens abroad on Dec. 25 and domestically in two parts, on March 21 and April 18 -- a better fit for cinephiles than for the raincoat crowd.
As an onscreen disclaimer makes clear from the outset, "This film is an abridged and censored version" of von Trier's bigger, longer and uncut edit, which is said to run five-and-a-half hours. According to a note from producer Louise Vesth included in the press notes, "Technically the changes in the abridged version consist of an editing out of the most explicit closeups of genitals," though such footage cannot possibly account for 90 minutes of footage (can it?), especially considering that the American version serves up a montage of roughly two dozen flaccid penises, presumably an inventory of its protagonist's conquests. For most, four hours will be plenty, and the film doesn't feel compromised in any way. (Different territories will reportedly see different cuts, according to local decency standards.) Read the full review