Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell and Willem Dafoe
Volumes 1 & 2 in UK Cinemas for a One Night Stand on February 22nd, 2014

by Ella Jean

Woody Allen in 1972 gave us Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Now in 2014, it’s as if Lars Von Trier has written “Everything You Already Knew About Sex (But Failed to Question)”. Forty-two years has added succinctness to titles, and today we can call a sexual exploration what it is, avec parentheses: Nymph()maniac.

The film follows the life of a woman, Joe (played by four actresses including Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg), from birth to the moment she is found beaten in an alleyway by the lonely, analytical Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Seligman helps her recover and we hear her life’s story in chapters, each enhanced by Seligman’s bookish knowledge and knack for analogies.

Nymph()maniac has an all-star cast with notable names alongside breakout performances, yet to look at individual actors in this film does something to reduce the epic quality of the story. I’ll make an exception only to comment on Shia LaBeouf whose paper-bagged head has been the centre of a lot of press lately (talk about reductive). Shia does the most convincing on-screen tears I have ever seen. There’s something about his boy-to-man energy that gives him a vulnerable quality not seen in many other Hollywood actors at the moment. It makes everything about his performance convincing. Well, everything but his accent. Even that question mark (Australian? South African? Mayfair? What are you trying to do, Shia?) adds to the flawed qualities of the character and film. Personally, I’d justify it as an intentional choice by director LVT. After all, he made Dogma for Christ’s sake, he knows how to deal with suspension of disbelief.

Von Trier’s directing is still deeply rooted in dogmatic film style. His lack of continuity between shots and the attention to nature’s details make his movies unique dream-like experiences. Each chapter of Joe’s tale looks different than the last. Her youth is captured in quick cuts as it whips past, whereas her later years are comprised of longer shots and wider angles.  Every detail in Nymph()maniac comes from necessity. For instance, the music is an anachronistic mix of classical, rock, psychedelia and metal, yet fits like a glove.

The first volume of the film is about Joe’s reckless exploration of lust versus love. I’ve explained my past experiences with LVT films like being stabbed in the stomach by Von Trier’s sharp knife which twists until your hurt becomes surreal. This movie is more provocative than pain-enducing, though I had a similar knife-like reaction to an exchange between Joe and Seligman: “Love is blind.” “No, it’s worse. Love is something you didn’t ask for.”

In the second volume, as Joe ages, she feels an onset of guilt, despite not really hurting anyone with her desire. With no particular attachment to a moral textbook, we are asked if society has unnecessarily tortured Joe, and if so, how has it managed to without dramatic incidence. Her guilt increases alongside the extremes she needs to satisfy her fetishes.  Women can give praise to Von Trier for shedding light on the double standard of male versus female sexuality. So much about femininity is discussed, including motherhood, promiscuity and consent.

But before I start the “Church of Von Trier” there are a few things to note. Yes, many women in the film fight for their sexual rights, but they are all patriarchally accessible. While Joe does men of all different shapes, sizes, cuts and colours, the only women we see are white with unrealistic, mannequin figures. Plus, who can forget LVT jokingly saying “Okay, I’m a Nazi.”? Many fear to love Von Trier after he expressed sympathy for Hitler in a 2011 Cannes Film Festival press conference for his film Melancholia. He failed to hide his voice in a line of Joe’s that is very clearly a comment on the controversy that surrounded him two years ago: “We elevate those that say right but mean wrong, and mock those that say wrong but mean right.”

Like in Woody Allen’s work, it is sometimes tough separating a person from their art, which is difficult because this movie asks for your indulgence. It asks that you indulge in Von Trier’s perfectly chosen shots and sounds, and indulge in discussing and questioning sexuality.

Nymp()maniac is long and epic. It’s an anti-love, pro-lust tale that is jarring, fierce, intimate and guilt-inducing. Still, do not fear the ‘240 minutes’ label. You will last without the use of performance enhancing stimulants.

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