Having journeyed into madness, self-mutilation and apocalypse with Antichrist and Melancholia, for the final instalment in his so-called ‘Depression’ trilogy Lars Von Trier has served up something entirely different – a teasing, four hour anti-erotic picaresque that is his most playful film to date.

Where the earlier films had an entrancing intensity that recalled the work of Von Trier’s hero Andrei Tarkovsky, Nymphomaniac has more in common with Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour – a barbed assault on bourgeois morality that works best as black satire.

Joe (Charlotte Gainsborough/Stacy Martin) is discovered lying unconscious in an alleyway by a solitary middle aged autodidact named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes her home to his grubby flat. As he plies her with tea and pastries, Joe begins to confide in this gentle soul, recounting her history as a “bad human being” whose compulsive hyper-sexuality has made her a pariah in the eyes of society.  With the monk-like, asexual Seligman in the role of confessor, she relates her carnal misadventures from childhood to the present in a series of episodic flashbacks.

Drawing on a lifetime of reading, Seligman conjures up an array of esoteric metaphorical allusions through which to interpret Joe’s experiences – from fly fishing to numerology, mountaineering knots and the polyphony of JS Bach.

With its determinedly unerotic sex scenes interspersed with rambling philosophical digressions, Nymphomaniac resembles the novels of the 18th century literary libertines Jean Baptiste de Boyer and the Marquis de Sade (whose Justine inspired Von Trier’s breakthrough film, Breaking the Waves, and lent its name to Kirsten Dunst’s character in Melancholia).

But where Justine is a victim corrupted by predatory males, Joe is very much in the driving seat, maintaining a chilly emotional distance as she juggles her many conquests.  “I love my cunt, and my filthy, dirty lust,” she tells a sex addiction group in one scene, pouring scorn on the other members for internalising the hypocrisies of bourgeois society.

Nymphomaniac 14 photo by Christian Geisnaes

The main problem with Nymphomaniac is that the scenes from Joe’s past often feel like pastiches. Von Trier’s customary deadpan style feels particularly stilted and self-conscious here, leaving little room for suspension of disbelief or emotional investment on the part of the viewer.  “Which way do you think you’d get more out of my story?,” Joe asks an incredulous Seligman at one point, “By believing in it or not believing in it?”  But Nymphomaniac’s most emotionally loaded scenes simply feel too phony to allow this leap of faith.

Matters are not helped by the casting and performances. As the young Joe, rake-thin Stacy Martin is a doe-eyed blank canvas who, with her heroin-chic looks, might have wandered onto the set from a Calvin Klein ad.  A woefully miscast Shia LaBeouf turns in a bizarre performance as Jerome, complete with bewildering Aussie-Brit accent.  Christian Slater, as Joe’s doting father, does his best with what he’s given, and whether you credit Uma Thurman’s hysterical cameo as a wronged wife will be a matter of taste, though she does get to deliver one of the film’s killer lines as she asks Joe witheringly: “Would it be alright if I show the children the whoring bed?”

Fortunately, Stellan Skarsgård is wonderful as Seligman, and it’s the rapport between him and Gainsborough that holds the film together. Also outstanding is Jamie Bell as ‘K’, an inscrutable S&M practitioner who doles out savage beatings to Joe as she seeks out ever more desperate extremes. The scenes between Bell and Gainsborough are riveting – it’s one of the few relationships in the film that carries any sense of reality.

Nymphomaniac 25 photo by Christian Geisnaes

This artificiality is hardly new in Von Trier. All of his films feature a kind of Brechtian distancing, explicitly so in the case of the stripped down soundstages of Dogville and Manderlay.  But as much as they risk derision and disaster, Von Trier’s films usually succeed in creating compelling worlds that exert a cumulative emotional power. If you’re willing to go with him, Von Trier can take you into cinematic fever dreams that feel like journeying in your own subconscious.

But somehow Nymphomaniac never quite manages to be more than the sum of its devices. Best understood as a comedy, the film comes unstuck when it attempts too much heavy lifting, and Von Trier’s quasi-feminist theorising about sexual psychology and gender politics is invariably banal.

Nymphomaniac also exhibits some kitschy self-reflexivity – notably a sledgehammer nod to the opening scene of Antichrist, complete with snatches of Handel’s aria “Lascia Ch’io Panga”, which soundtracked the earlier film. There are also references to Breaking The Waves, whose air of moribund, queasy voyeurism Nymphomaniac often shares. In its closing chapter the film lapses into pointless melodrama, ending with a groan-inducing final twist that’s been hovering since the opening moments.

All this notwithstanding, there is much to enjoy. Von Trier’s script is restlessly inventive and often very witty.  Reminders of the Dane’s directorial mastery are everywhere, and there are plenty of thrilling bravado touches, such as when Von Trier punctures the arty gravitas of his opening scene with the pummelling power chords of German industrial metal band, Rammstein. Nymphomaniac also contains some genuinely poignant moments, as when the mature Joe discovers a lone, misshapen tree on a windy hilltop and recognises that she has found a metaphor for her own soul.

Overall though, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Von Trier’s career is in danger of entering a decadent stage. Lurching close to self-parody, Nymphomaniac is ultimately limp and unsatisfying, its pleasure centres deadened by excessive self-abuse.

 

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