This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, March 2014
Four hours of Lars von Trier may not be everyone’s cup of tea, particularly when you realise this is a two-part film about a middle-aged woman recounting her Life as a Sexual Being. With candid narration and eye-popping pictures. In just about every shade of grey.
So, having adored the melodrama of Melancholia but known better than to put myself through the female genital mutilation of Antichrist, I settled with girded loins into the first part of Nymphomaniac and was rapidly drawn in to a fascinating, non-judgemental, sometimes bizarre, tale of compulsion.
Von Trier’s leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg is as typically nonchalant as she regales a complete stranger (Stellan Skarsgard) with stories about her sexual coming-of-age. The narrative nips back and forth between Skarsgard’s deadpan analogies with fly fishing (hilarious and insightful moments which bring welcome relief) and the dramatization of young Joe (a courageous Stacy Martin in her first screen role) losing her virginity to Shia LaBeouf before embarking on a life where variety is most definitely the spice.
Why would you want to sit through four hours of this? I’m at a bit of a loss to explain. But contrary to my apprehensions, this is von Trier at this best – languid photography, surprising (and surprisingly transporting) bursts of death metal music, artful imagery and fascinatingly meta dialogue. Gainsbourg (looking more like her mother, Jane Birkin, with every film) is excellent, lending crucial credibility to what might otherwise be dismissed as almost-porn. Interestingly, the film isn’t as graphic as one might expect, although von Trier entices the audience into believing we’re seeing actors perform for real. (We’re not – the closing credits made sure to preserve the modesty of the “professional actors” in the film.) But there is still plenty of make your eyes bulge.
Supporting the core cast are Christian Slater, with an enchanting accent utterly appropriate for a European film, and Jamie Bell as a benevolent sadist. Uma Thurman steals her scene in an excerpt which is simultaneously squirm-inducing and laugh-out-loud.
Though the tone darkens in the second part, the dialogue is still replete with fascinating philosophical and historical insights, and when a outlandish ménage à trois segues into a discussion on political correctness, it’s clear that von Trier’s latest delivers more than just a one night stand.