Nymphomaniac Parts 1 & 2 ****
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Mia Goth, Willem Dafoe Director: Lars Von Trier
Lars Von Trier has always been one to raise eyebrows. Whether it's through the content of his films (on screen genital mutilation anyone?) or off it (expressing sympathy for Hitler in a press conference was never going to go down well), Von Trier has made a name for himself as one of the most controversial names in cinema. It came as no surprise, then, when he announced that not only did he want to direct a film about sex addiction, he would provocatively name it Nymphomaniac and release two whole films of material in his dark and challenging exploration of human sexuality. Coming out of the cinema at the end, having watched four whole hours of explicit sex, the main question I was asking was whether the material warranted its run-time and being split into two films. Realistically speaking, the answer is no, but Von Trier's treatment of the material is so fascinating that I hardly cared that I'd had to give up half a day to watch it. Nymphomaniac explores what so few filmmakers have dared to explore before; this is sex not for titillation, but for sexuality's sake. Joe is addicted to sex from her teenage years and we see how this effects her long term - in a conventional two hour run-time, we would might have seen episodes of her nymphomania, contained sporadically within an overarching story, but instead we are given the full sexual awakening; we see a child rubbing herself on the floor for pleasure, we see a teenager trying to fuck her way through the men on a train, we see a woman begging to be beaten for sexual kicks. The film is so episodic, in fact, that when the main storyline does actually take centre stage it almost feels to have come from nowhere. Joe recounts her stories partially with pride, partially with disdain and partially with an objective analysis that even the A-sexual Seligman finds disturbing. She sees herself as a pariah and a sinner, whereas Seligman sees her like an anthropological subject, whose life is more a case-study than anything emotive. He waffles on tangents, often irritating Joe with his distractions, but he serves to soften the blow of the barrage of sex the audience finds themselves dragged through. Skarsgård is arguably the stronger of the pair here, but probably because he has the less showy part. Gainsbourg is acting with all guns blazing (God knows what she went through during the production of this film), but Skarsgård is subtle, gentle and withdrawn. Von Trier has called upon two of his favourite rep players and they have both turned in two of the finest performances of their careers.
The cast offers sterling support from many household names, but there is one name that stands out from the others. Shia LaBeouf and Jamie Bell deliver performances you didn't know they had in them, while Stacy Martin gives a tremendous debut, almost carrying the first film by herself, but it is Uma Thurman's fifteen minutes (if that) that will live with me for the rest of my life. Not only does she scene steal, she steals the entire first film, clattering into a movie where the drama is mostly happening behind the eyes of the characters and spilling her emotion all over it like a crazed screeching pheasant, rocking the boat and reminding us just how much Joe's actions can damage the lives she touches upon. Thurman, one of the most inconsistent of great actresses, has rarely been better than here. As you might imagine, one of the stars of the show is the sex itself. Intercourse, genitalia and a whole array of sexual acts are on full display, but it's not the most explicit film I've ever seen. Watching Gainsbourg actually giving felatio was more than I was expecting, but the camera doesn't linger longer than it needs to. Not once does the film ever actually cross the line into gratuitous. In a film about sex, the sex on screen is definitely present but never over-done and for once, nudity on screen feels as natural as nudity in real life - there's a boundary that comes down really early in the film and, four hours later, seeing Gainsbourg naked is as natural as seeing Gainsbourg clothed. Treat Nymphomaniac like a boxset. Binge with it on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Surprisingly, it's quite accessible and not that hard a watch. However, it's been a long time since Von Trier felt as Dogme as he feels here. Melancholia and Antichrist had strayed so far from his filmic roots that I wondered if he would ever venture back in that direction again. But here, people take the limelight with substance taking priority over style. Where Melancholia revelled in its scientific and celestial majesty, this is gritty warts-and-all realism with stylised sequences complimenting what is otherwise a naturalistic piece. But, regardless of how planed down and simple this feels in comparison, Von Trier is the star here, flexing his auteur muscles even to the point of self-parody. Von Trier might be shying away from the limelight post Hitler-gate, but this is a director who continues to grow and earns his title as arguably the greatest director in Europe ...though he and Haneke would certainly have a fight on their hands with each other if either tried to claim that prize for real.
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