David Strat­ton gives his as­sess­ment of Lars von Trier’s con­tro­ver­sial Nym­pho­ma­niac

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - David Strat­ton Nym­pho­ma­niac Vol­umes 1 and 2 (R18+) Limited re­lease from Thurs­day Romeo & Juliet (M) Limited re­lease from Thurs­day

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

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