David Stratton gives his assessment of Lars von Trier’s controversial Nymphomaniac
THOUGH I liked some of his early work, I have never been a great fan of Danish director Lars von Trier and I’ve detested some of his films, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville among them. Nymphomaniac, which is screening in Australian cinemas in the “international” (that is, modified) version, seems designed to be his magnum opus, the film in which he gets to rail against everything he loathes about contemporary life and contemporary cinema.
Fair enough I suppose, and one result is the film contains more interesting ideas than much of his former work. It also has some accomplished performances and very fine sequences — not enough to make a four-hour film completely bearable, but better than I’d feared.
The version Australian audiences are seeing, which is apparently the same version that has screened in Scandinavia and elsewhere, is presented in two parts, volumes one and two. Each part begins with a disclaimer to the effect that von Trier “approved of” but had no “involvement” with this “abridged ... censored” version. Take that with a pinch of salt; of course he was involved, it’s just this is apparently not his favoured version, not the “director’s cut”.
Volume One runs 117 minutes and ends with a complete credit crawl and images from Volume Two; Volume Two runs 123 minutes, making for a convenient four-hour running time in total. In Australia you’ll be able to see the two parts at one sitting with an interval in between; elsewhere, including America, they’ll be screened quite separately as two different features. The unseen director’s cut runs a total of 5½ hours, we’re told; Volume One of that version screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February and it’s rumoured Volume Two may screen uncut in Cannes in May, if the festival has forgiven the director for the comments he made a couple of years ago that made him persona non grata.
This Danish-German-French-Belgian coproduction, which is spoken in English, begins in a gloomy back alley of an unnamed city in what seems to be Britain (pounds are used for currency and the actors speak with British accents). Seligman (von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard), returning home in the snow to his shabby apartment, comes across Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who has been badly beaten. He takes her home and she tells him her story.
This contrived set-up is typical of von Trier; when you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense but it’s a contrivance on which the entire film is based. Seligman, who loves books and music, explains his family was “always antiZionist, not anti-Semitic as certain politicians would like to make us”. That’s von Trier talking, and it’s the first of many similar speeches about the sins of political correctness and other ills of modern society that stop the film in its tracks from time to time.
Joe, who considers herself “a terrible human being”, tells her story in considerable detail. She had a loving father (Christian Slater), who taught her to appreciate trees, and a remote mother (Connie Nielsen) she describes as “a cold bitch”. She discovered her genitalia (not the word she uses) at the age of two and — played by the talented Stacy Martin — lost her virginity at 15 to Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), a neighbour more interested in his moped than in her desires.
Within a couple of years she was competing with her friend as to how many men each could have sex with on a train journey and as she gets older she has hundreds of lovers, usually not sleeping with any of them more than once. Seligman, who is “amused” by her frank revelations, compares her sex life with fly fishing in the first of eight chapters into which the film is divided.
A scene in which a betrayed wife (overplayed by Uma Thurman) arrives at Joe’s apartment with her three small sons is likely to separate von Trier admirers from the rest: I found it ridiculously overdone and utterly unconvincing.
Soon after the start of Volume Two, Gainsbourg replaces Martin in the flashbacks, and the film enters a long section involving sadomasochism as Joe abandons Jerome, who she has married, and their son in order to spend nights with K (Jamie Bell), who beats her bare buttocks, scenes that are painful to watch. Later still she takes on a protege, P (Mia Goth, a dead-ringer for the young Hayley Mills), marking the start of a lesbian relationship that takes this sexual odyssey into yet another direction.
Von Trier’s characteristically quirky sense of humour makes light of much of this, typically in a scene where Joe finds herself in a bedroom with two African men with enormous erections. There are more disturbing elements, though, such as a scene involving a man (JeanMarc Barr) who owes money — Joe has become a debt collector — and who proves to be a pedophile, but who is comforted, in a rather unexpected way, by Joe.
I can’t imagine what might be contained in the additional 1½ hours of the director’s cut; in its present form, the film is very sexually explicit (a disclaimer at the end of both volumes notes body doubles were used and the professional actors didn’t take part in penetrative sex), but in this form the exorbitantly long film veers maddeningly from the intriguing to the banal, from the sublime to the very ridiculous.
Of course, von Trier loves to create a scandal and this is his answer, his slap in the face, to his critics. From this point of view, I was interested to note the suggestion that Seligman, who knows something about everything and is always pontificating, is supposed to represent a film critic. If that’s true, it’s not very subtle but it is rather typical — like the film as a whole. STELLAN Skarsgard also crops up in the latest Romeo & Juliet, a British-Italian co-production that was spectacularly filmed in Italy, including Verona. Skarsgard plays the Prince whose attempts to persuade the quarrelling Capulets and Montagues to give up their feud fall on deaf ears. Julian Fellowes provided the screenplay. I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, but it sounds as though he’s pruned and to some extent updated the dialogue; certainly some of the text sounds unsettlingly off-key.
In the notorious 1936 MGM version of the play, the lovers were played by Leslie Howard (43 at the time) and Norma Shearer (34). At least in this version, directed by Carlo Carlei, the actors are closer to the correct age: British actor Douglas Booth is 21 and American actress Hailee Steinfeld (memorable in the Coen Brothers version of True Grit) is 17. Age matters, because essentially this is a story of youthful infatuation so strong that incidentals like their families’ bloody feud become secondary.
For all this, and despite the flawless production and costume design and the timeless locations, this seems a rather unnecessary film. Maybe every generation needs its own Romeo & Juliet, but if you want a definitive version of the tale of star-crossed lovers you can’t go far past Baz Luhrmann’s dazzlingly postmodern 1996 version. Carlei’s film is beautiful but sterile, and seems nervous its audience will be bored to the extent that there seem to be more sword fights than usual. Only Paul Giamatti’s touching turn as the meddling Friar stays in the mind when this passionless film is over.
Shia LaBeouf stars in Lars von Trier’s lengthy Nymphomaniac, top; and Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth as the doomed teens in Romeo & Juliet, above