Probably the most eagerly anticipated arthouse film of 2014, Lars von Trier’s provocative 2-part Nymphomaniac demands to be viewed as a complete piece unless you want to be left gagging for more.   

Opening with a thundering Rammstein track in a dark, wet alley where Charlotte Gainsbourg’s battered, unconscious body lies in the snow, Nymphomaniac is a visual and aural feast, exactly the sensuous, profane button pusher promised by the film’s marketing campaign and those rude posters.  But it’s also a sly, playful examination of gender politics and sexuality as Gainsbourg’s bruised, soiled Scheherazade recounts her life to Stellan Skarsgard’s naïve, virginal Good Samaritan.  Most surprisingly, given it’s part of von Trier’s ‘Depression Trilogy’ (which has so far consisted of laugh riots Antichrist and Melancholia) it’s very funny, easily von Trier’s lightest, most upbeat, accessible film since 1998’s The Idiots.   

Divided into eight chapters (five in the first volume, three in the second), Nymphomaniac sees the solitary, scholarly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) discover the badly beaten Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a dingy alley.  Naturally, he takes her home for some tea and sympathy, cleaning her up and tending her wounds.  Staying the night, she confesses she is a nymphomaniac and recounts her erotic odyssey, from childhood to middle age, to Seligman’s eagerly attentive audience in an attempt to prove to him that she’s a terrible person.   

Beginning her story with the statement “I discovered my c**t at age two,” and, be honest, if someone started telling you a story beginning with that line, you’d keep listening, the film flashes back to Joe’s childhood with loving father Christian Slater and cold, distant mother Connie Nielsen before beginning proper with her teenage years (newcomer Stacy Martin playing the younger Joe from 15 to 30), losing her troublesome virginity in brutally perfunctory fashion to local bad boy – he has a moped – Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) before sucking off strangers on a train for a bet with BFF Sophie Kennedy Clark and taking a stand against the patriarchal propaganda appeal of love by forming a sisterhood of likeminded girls, dedicated to their own sexual pleasure, Joe cheerfully fucking anything in (and more usually out of) trousers, culminating in the return of first love Jerome and the loss of her ability to orgasm.  

Things take a darker turn then in Volume 2 as the Story Of Joe becomes more The Story Of O, Gainsbourg taking over from Martin as Joe’s frantic search for an orgasm sees her descend into a squalid world of S&M, violent self abuse, abortive orgies, lipstick lesbianism and a life of crime as she puts her knowledge of mens’ weaknesses to profitable use, Joe and Seligman frequently interrupting her tale to discuss gender politics, mathematics, morality, theology, political correctness and fly fishing.    

Shorn of around 90 minutes of footage (among it some of the more explicit shots of coupling involving “porn-doubles” and a stomach-churning abortion) that will be reinstated for a threatened Director’s Cut later in the year, Nymphomaniac is still a compelling, challenging, provocative piece of work produced by an artist at the height of his powers.  Boasting a witty, subversive script by von Trier (that refreshingly never infantilises the power of the vagina by calling it a pussy; it’s always a c**t), it’s a feverish, at times strikingly beautiful celebration of female sexuality in all its complexity that steadfastly refuses to offer a moral judgment on its female protagonist and her rapacious pursuit of satisfaction and while it’s explicit and erotic, it’s far from wanking material except perhaps for the most bookish of onanists who get off on discussions of fly fishing, philosophy and Fibonacci numbers.  There’s plenty of tit but relatively little titillation.   

While Gainsbourg and Skarsgard are as good as you’d expect them to be and Willem Dafoe and Udo Kier shine in minor roles, von Trier’s knack for casting actors pays off once again with career best performances coaxed from the most unexpected quarters.  Shia LaBeouf’s performance may owe a little to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in Mary Poppins (never has the epithet “Bloody” been deployed so unconvincingly), but he’s repellant and sympathetic in equal measure, his character’s multifaceted humanity showing through.  LaBeouf’s teenage model/actress girlfriend Mia Goth brings an otherworldly fragile toughness to her role and Jamie Bell banishes forever the spectre of that ballet boy as Joe’s brutal, strangely tender, terrifying, sadistic master.  Uma Thurman’s never been better than as spurned wife Mrs H, three young boys in tow, who confronts Joe with the immortal line: “Would it be alright if I show the children the Whoring Bed?”, her performance raw and angry while Christian Slater is truly wonderful and devastating as Joe’s beloved father, unquestionably the true romance of her life. 

The standout performance of the film however is the frequently nude, waifish newcomer Stacy Martin’s turn as the young Joe who looks enough like Gainsbourg to be mistaken for her mother, Jane Birken.  Called on to portray by turns naïve coquette, predatory minx, jaded romantic, voracious sex addict and grieving daughter, Martin’s performance is deft, subtle and brave, exposing not just flesh but her raw soul. 

Far from the po-faced, depressing smutfest you feared it might be, Nymphomaniac is exactly the film you want it to be; a graphic, funny and intelligent truly adult film by an artist who never fails to surprise, von Trier’s pulled it off again.  NO NOT THAT KINDA PULLED OFF YOU SMUTTY BASTARDS!

VERDICT: [rating=5]

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