Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II – A double dose from the master of controversy Lars von Trier

Renowned Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier has always set out to make films that defy expectation and cause debate. Yet one other thing that can always be expected from his work is an air of controversy. After all this is a filmmaker who has often explored potentially blasphemous ideas (such as Bess’s (Emily Watson) belief in Breaking the Waves (1996) that it is God’s will she should have sex with multiple men in order to keep her husband alive), who filmed unsimulated sex in The Idiots (1998) and who included a shocking scene of female genital mutilation in Antichrist (2009), a film that led to accusations of misogyny (an issue I am still warily unsure about myself). Now with von Trier’s latest release the controversy is on him yet again for his double feature, Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II (2013), a title that tells you all you need to know really. Kindly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a beaten and bloody woman in an alley called Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and takes her home to care for her. His curiosity gets the better of him and he asks her how and why she came to be there. What follows over the course of 4 hours is Joe’s account of her less than conventional life, a story that involves sex, violence, lies and more sex. While the frank discussion of this sexual subject matter might be seen by some as too close to the bone, that ain’t nothing compared to the real controversy surrounding these two films. Von Trier chose to feature real, unsimulated sex throughout, using porn doubles to carry out the acts which were then digitally imposed in post-production onto the real actors in the scene. Porn posing as art? Well, in might surprise you but these are two of the least pornographic and most beautiful and entertaining films you’ll see this year.

Nymphomaniac Vols. I  and II (2013) – B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and Joe (Stacy Martin)

Von Trier’s work, while well written and cleverly thought out, can often have its dull moments, mostly due to overindulgence on his part. However Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II manage to avoid this, despite their long running time. Sure some will argue that his script is one massive lecture on aspects such as philosophy, music, mathematics, religion and the ridiculous ideals of ‘love’, all of which von Trier ties in to Joe’s story in varying ways. Often they are told by Seligman in anecdotes that he believes relate to Joe’s story. So for a moment in which Joe tells him her first sexual experience involved 3 + 5 thrusts (front and rear) before it was over, Seligman delights in telling her these are numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. Yet von Trier never lingers on ideas like this for too long, flitting quickly back and forth between Joe’s past life and her present with the attentive Seligman, in turn ensuring that both films go along at a satisfying pace. Like a few of his other films Nymphomaniac is also episodic, von Trier using chapter headings for each part of Joe’s life as she recounts it. This repetitive method could have been hideously boring and trite, but von Trier is able to keep the interest throughout with his carefully plotted, detailed and expressionistic writing, as well as through his use of dark humour. Indeed it seems strange to say but both Nymphomaniac films are two of the funniest films you’ll see this year.

Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) confronts her husband (Hugo Speer) and Joe

While his scripts for both volumes are superb though, it can’t be denied that the first film is more fun. Recounting her early years when her sexuality began to awaken in various ways von Trier throws in all sorts of exciting ideas, such as the comparison of the teenage Joe trying to entice men being like the fly-fisher who uses an alluring fly to catch and reel in fish. Volume II is the more sombre film in which the older Joe begins to see the downside to certain aspects in her life. These more melancholy moments don’t always compare well to the lighter first volume (even though the first film isn’t without its own few dark instances). Still Volume II does indeed have fascinating scenes that keep you watching, one standout being a chapter in which the older Joe attempts to reignite her sexual passion (featuring Jamie Bell with a stunning performance and in a completely different role than what we’ve seen him in before). Overall though it can’t be denied that von Trier’s storytelling for both films is an absolute triumph – an epic masterpiece that is a wonder in its execution.

Von Trier’s visuals are also as compelling as his writing. Stunning cinematography is something we have come to expect from all of his films, and for both volumes here it is similarly designed with many rich, beautiful shots, some of which are almost painterly in their composition. Some moments are vivid and colourful, while others are starkly white, mostly for those harsher instances in Joe’s life. Von Trier’s direction is another element that also adds to the films in an intriguing way, von Trier using cutaways, split screen, and all other manner of methods to better explore and explain Joe’s life (in particular for the first volume), as well as to keep us watching. Whatever moment you look at in these two films though you can see just how much care and thought has been put into every single moment of von Trier’s direction, how every instance tells a story along with his writing. Another amazing achievement.

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) meets K (Jamie Bell)

Yet beautiful as it is, that controversy will still rear its head for some through von Trier’s decision to include real sex scenes. The overall method of using porn doubles and CGI to superimpose this on the actors really is seamless in its execution. But is von Trier simply using real sex to get a rise out of people? To sell more tickets? And can it really be called art? Many other films have featured unsimluated sex before (Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004), Baise-moi (2000), In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and many more) so this is nothing new. And just as in those other films, the use of real sex is there for a purpose. Von Trier is using this method to obviously create realism, but also to draw attention to the subject matter and to Joe herself. And it might seem shocking to say but the real sex isn’t actually that explicit. Nor is it sexy or a turn-on or (weirdly) that pornographic. It isn’t glam like actual porn, but naturalistic. Therefore the age-old question of whether this is porn or art?: it is unequivocally art. You just have to look at Lars von Trier’s gorgeous visuals and direction, his rich characterisation and recognise the complex ideas he’s conveying to see that this is so much more than a simple skin flick.

Despite the use of real sex and the fact that these films received a cinematic release, it is in fact von Trier’s portrayal of Joe and of this subject matter that is so groundbreaking. While Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011) was an excellent film and innovative in its own portrayal of sex, it showed Michael Fassbender’s character as someone who hates himself for his addiction, who is being destroyed by it. In Nymphomaniac Joe doesn’t even see herself as having an ‘addiction’. While she’s not entirely happy per se with who she is, she knows it is part of her forever, both her burden and her identity. She deals with it in her own way, using it to her advantage and letting it take over when she wants to. This is a radical viewpoint and an aspect that makes both volumes of Nymphomaniac very empowering to watch, speaking as a woman. It makes a change to see a woman get what she wants for once, to make her own choices and for the most part be in control of her life. Indeed Joe is one of von Trier’s strongest female character creations – a superbly written character and one who is brought to expert life through an incredible performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is vulnerable and softly-spoken, yet hard and determined – an empowering figure and a brilliant complex character, which Gainsbourg portrays with ease.

Charlotte Gainsbourg gives a stunning performance as Joe, an empowering female character

Nymphomaniac: Vols. I and II obviously isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. That controversy will still get the better of people, as will the more shocking and difficult parts to watch. Some may also begrudge the ending of the story, a love/hate moment that will split opinion, but either way will have people debating its meaning. However get around these hard to watch moments (and Shia LeBeouf’s HIDEOUS British accent – worse than Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins (1964) and that’s me being kind) and you’ll see two of the best film experiences of this year. A detailed masterpiece in writing and vision that is incredible in its execution and an overall epic that is stunningly shot and directed, featuring superb performances throughout from Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, newcomer Stacy Martin as the younger Joe (a revelatory performance filled with wry humour and heart) and Uma Thurman in a short role as a wronged wife (and with a scene-stealing, raw performance of her own). A double feature that will leave you talking about its issues for days after, which is never a bad thing. Step into the wonderful world of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. You might feel the need for a shower afterwards though…

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~ by square-eyed-geek on April 11, 2014.

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