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Love him or hate him, there’s absolutely no denying what a massively talented filmmaker Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier is: the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Despite his propensity for incendiary soundbites while on press junkets, Von Trier has been an uncompromising force in the world of film since bursting into the public eye with Breaking the Waves (1996): since that time, Von Trier has given us some of the most unforgettable, amazing art films in the history of the medium – Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005), Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011) are all deeply individualistic, exquisitely crafted and endlessly inventive works of art that don’t shy away from big or unpleasant questions while never losing sight of the impish, dark sense of humor that’s characterized all of Von Trier’s productions.

Quite simply, people expect Von Trier to be a shit disturber and the description for his latest venture produced the required amount of consternation: in his daffiest pronouncement yet, Von Trier promised to do no less than completely explore female sexuality, from a female perspective, none the less. The very notion of any male proclaiming to “understand” female sexuality is both ridiculous and more than a little offensive: there’s much more than notions of textbook biology that factor into this, since psychological, societal and familial issues all factor into any understanding of what constitutes female sexuality. There’s also the fact that…well…you know…Lars Von Trier is a guy: what, exactly, makes him any kind of an expert on the female body?

Here’s the thing, though: it’s easy to get riled at Von Trier’s hubris, to scoff at the very notion that any man could purport to craft the end-all-be-all of female sexuality. After all, this is the same guy who gave us the unrelentingly misogynistic Dogville and the gynocidal-themed Antichrist: can we really trust someone like Von Trier to give anything approaching a balanced representation of female sexuality? It’s remarkably easy to talk shit about the whole enterprise until you’re actually face-to-face with the finished product. Is Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2014) the “ultimate” representation of female sexuality on the big screen? Probably not. Is it one of the most fascinating, inflammatory and must-see films of the year? Absolutely.

Divided across two halves, eight chapters and roughly 5.5 hours (this review refers to the “uncut director’s edition”), Nymphomaniac is the furthest thing from “rainy day” viewing. This is a film that demands (and rewards) close attention: interested parties are advised to just swallow the pill, devote a day to the proceedings and just let Von Trier take the reins. I’ve never been the biggest fan of binge-watching “large” films, in general, but take my advise: you’ll want to absorb Nymphomaniac in one go, similar to ripping a band-aid off in one pull.

We begin with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten nearly to death in an alley. He spirits her home, sees to her wounds and asks her about the circumstances that led to her dire condition. This, of course, is all a ploy to get us to the main event: the complete life history of our protagonist, Joe. From this point on, Joe relates her life story to the kindly, doting Seligman, a story which focuses predominantly on her sexual awakening and exploits. Although we’ll view it all in seemingly arbitrary order, we’ll follow Joe from her first orgasm, at age 12, all the way to the events that led to her current state. Along the way, we’ll learn about her life-long love-affair with Jerome (Shia Lebouf), her relationship with her scientist father (Christian Slater),  her introduction to BDSM at the hands of the mysterious K (Jamie Bell), her self-administered abortion and eventual mastery of her own libido, after the failure of the various men in her life.

It’s a painful journey, as we’ll see, a journey that involves the loss of Joe’s son, the loss of her beloved father, the loss of control over her own body, the loss of her “true love” and her eventual loss of self. It’s also an enlightening journey, however, as Joe learns to control her own sexuality and understand her body in ways that she never could before. Joe is anything but a victim: for the majority of the film’s runtime, Joe is in complete control of her sexuality and body: even when she doesn’t fully understand the ramifications, Joe is always the one who calls the shots. At the end of the day, can there really be a more progressive, forward-thinking POV than that?

Here’s the thing: as with anything else by Von Trier, love it or hate it, there’s absolutely no denying how amazing Nymphomaniac is…from a sheer filmmaking perspective, the film is an absolute marvel. Stuffed to bursting with gorgeous cinematography, ingenious editing, and some truly marvelous performances, Nymphomaniac is utterly captivating, from beginning to end. I simply cannot stress enough how impressive this is in a film that stretches nearly to the six-hour mark: this seems to fly by in record time.

I would be remiss if I didn’t spend at least a moment or two discussing the film’s sexual content. Ready? Here it goes: you will see lots and lots of penises, vaginas, graphic penetration, fellatio and cunnilingus…if any of this bothers you, this is, without a doubt, not the film for you. I will make the point, however, that the sexuality in Nymphomaniac always comes across as graphic, rather than gratuitous: there’s an important distinction and I feel that Von Trier manages to keep everything on the “proper” side throughout the film’s runtime.

One aspect of the film that adds, immeasurably, to the overall feel is the underlying sense of humor. While very little about Nymphomaniac is explicitly funny, per se, the film is chock-a-block with Von Trier’s patented sense of dark, ironic humor. While much of the humor comes from Seligman’s often inappropriate digressions and asides, one of the film’s purely “funniest” scenes has to be the setpiece where Joe attempts to instigate a threesome with two African men, without speaking their language. The scene acts as a microcosm of the entire film, in a way, expertly blending the slapstick and the obscene, the erotic and the ridiculous, to dizzying effect.

The core of the film, performance-wise, is definitely the combined tour-de-force of Gainsbourg and Skarsgard. While Skarsgard is reliably solid as the inquisitive, kindly scientist, Gainsbourg absolutely owns the film as Joe. There’s a nuance and sense of unpredictability to her performance that is an absolute joy to watch and I’ll be honest: the fact that Gainsbourg wasn’t nominated for any acting awards has more to do with the fact that Von Trier is too much of a hot potato than with real issues…her performance is magnificent and certainly deserved to be celebrated.

Most importantly, Nymphomaniac is an incredibly complex film: from the constant digressions (ala House of Leaves) to the time-line jumping to the theoretical discussions and the ever-prevalent symbolism, there’s an awful lot going on here at any given time. Von Trier manages to imbue everything with its own distinct feel, as befits the various themes: the hospice section has a stark, black-and-white feel that recalls Von Trier’s earliest, most experimental works, while various other portions recall the stunning visuals that characterize latter-day works like Antichrist and Melancholia.

My main issue going into this, to be honest, was the underlying notion that Von Trier really has no business telling this particular story: a film like this needs to come from a female perspective, no two ways about it. Ultimately, however, I find myself torn: Von Trier tells this tale with so much nuance and subtlety that it seems completely reductive to cut him out of the discussion. Von Trier, the man, might not have anything inherent to add to this particular gender discussion but Von Trier, the filmmaker, has plenty to say and it would seem a little remiss not to at least listen.

Ultimately, there’s a lot going on here, more than can, reasonably, be discussed in this kind of a format. While there will always be the question of whether Von Trier has any dog in this race, so to speak, the end-results speak for themselves. At the end of the day, all that we can do is look at the finished product and examine the facts, such as they are. Here are the facts: an uncompromising filmmaker has crafted an uncompromising film and the results demand to be seen and discussed. Is this the final word on gender discussions? Absolutely not…but I don’t think it pretends to be, either. Rather, I think that Von Trier has created a film which frames the discussion of female sexuality in a way that explicitly references not only modern notions of “entertainment” but classical “acceptance” of gender roles and norms.

More than anything, Nymphomaniac asks us to take all of the proffered information and frame it in a distinctly genderless manner: if we wouldn’t bat an eye at a guy doing any of this, why would we look so askance at a woman doing the same thing? In the end, this is Nymphomaniac (and Von Trier’s) greatest victory: we know that it’s “accepted,” but is it right? Nymphomaniac doesn’t think it is and, to be honest, neither should you.


 

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