I’m in the middle of watching Nymphomaniac, parts one and two. I planned on writing a long review on it after I’m done. But I’m seriously not sure if this movie is brilliant and a work of a genius or the most boring thing I’ve seen in ages.
There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. And it’s perfectly understandable. The movie touches upon the subject that we – claiming to be a modern, decent and moral society – like to pretend doesn’t exist. This movie is about sex and sexuality. Female sexuality, even. The plot is therefore rather simple. And yet it is so complicated. And that’s what makes the movie both very interesting and boring.
So Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe. A woman. A nymphomaniac. At least she claims to be one. One night, a man named Seligman finds Joe on the ground, seemingly having been beaten halfway to death. He takes her to his place, puts her in a bed and asks her what her story is. She tells him.
At a young age, Joe discovered that she liked sex. Or rather, the feelings that came with masturbation and sex. And soon, it becomes apparent that she thinks that sex or her sexuality is what dominates her entire life. Glimpses of other things she does surface here and there, but she dwells on the sex. The flashbacks of her love life, if you want to call it that because very often, there is absolutely no love whatsoever involved, are extensive and explicit.
Seligman listens to this and offers insight where he has insight. Be it about fishing, his love for books or some sort of psychological advice. Over the course of their conversation, not only do we get insight into Joe’s life, but also Seligman’s whose fate is a rather unusual one as well.
This lasts a bit over four hours. More often than not, it’s dreadfully boring. Because it’s the same repetitive story, just with slight escalation every time. Masturbation becomes sex, sex becomes public acts of sexual nature, this turns into sexual violence where both parties consent et cetera. It becomes apparent that Joe’s really a thrill-seeker. An adrenaline-junkie of sorts. While the media seems to think that the sex is all this movie is about, you could actually cut out all the sex-scenes and you’d still have the same story. The sex is only there as a kind of window dressing, something that keeps people talking, a publicity stunt. In fact, it’s completely superfluous given the situation we have with movies and TV. You know how all you need are two people kissing and then ho-humming a bit before disappearing into a room and you – as a viewer – know, that they’re now going to have sex? It’s been implanted in our brains since an early childhood. We understand that people are going to have sex without having to see it. Von Trier apparently doesn’t. Or he considers it art and some people agree.
And that’s where the movie’s biggest strength lies, apart from the fact that it’s very well-made. I’ll get to that in a minute, but for now, the plot is the subject of discussion. We’re shown all these images, all very graphic in nature. But we’re left alone with them. There’s little to no explanation to anything that goes on. The story seems to be told in a “So that happened” fashion and that’s what makes this movie weirdly fascinating. And that’s just one layer of the entire construct that is the movie.
There’s also the… not exactly banter between Seligman and Joe. But their conversations do have some sort of underlying conflict in it. They craft Joe’s story by giving it chapters. They’re titled by something that she sees in the barren room of Seligman. A fishing hook, a stain that looks like a gun… that sort of thing. But she twists these things, makes them their own. While he tries to make them something intellectual, something scientific.
This takes time. This banter, mixed with extensive flashbacks, goes on and on. The problem comes in as soon as you get the point of the chapter, even if it’s “There is no point to this. At all.” The dialogs are well-crafted. Seligman and Joe bounce off each other well. Their conversation flows naturally, even considering the very unusual and little talked-about subject matter. Occasionally, she’s on a soapbox, other times it’s his turn. Both win, both lose. Their conversation is very much like life. Sort of pointless and it goes on. But while it lasts, it’s very interesting and fascinating, even if occasionally boring.
By far the most interesting thing about the movie is the use of silence. It’s not a very loud movie, at all. The film is either very loud or very quiet. Both ends of the spectrum work well, there’s no middle ground. It’s not just the quiet in terms of sound, but also in imagery. One of the best illustrations of this is probably the very first scene. The screen stays black, there is no sound, for the better part of a minute. All of a sudden, Rammstein’s song Führe mich (English: Lead me) blares at a high volume. The imagery itself doesn’t change much, but the transition from that quiet you just got used to and the blaring noise is so jarring that it’s deeply unsettling.
Similarly, the soundtrack, apart from that one recurring Rammstein-Track, is very subdued and quiet. There is never any sound during the sex scenes, so all noises the people involved make seem amplified and much more immediate and thus more uncomfortable. Because, I guess, at some point I’ve realized that this movie may or may not want to tell me that other people’s sex-life is none of my business. Sure, I know this already, but it’s nice to see that there’s a four-hour-long movie telling me this as well.
In addition to all that, Lars von Trier employs a great many filming techniques, seemingly without rhyme or reason. There is stock footage inserted here and there, numbers and text are laid over the image every now and then, scenes in black and white, image slideshows et cetera. All this happens for no other reason than to show some arbitrary point that is mentioned in the movie. But it works. The points made are things I still remember. Even though I occasionally lack the context.
So the movie comes to a close. I better wrap this up. There’s now a scene where Seligman passes on the moral of the story. It makes sense. It’s intelligent. It’s a bit out of left field, but with about half a second of thought, it fits.
Does this make Nymphomaniac a good movie? Something you must go see? Not necessarily. As with all of Lars von Trier’s movies, they’ve got a reason for existing. Nobody asked for the movies, nobody needs them. They’re not the pieces of art some critics think they are. They’re not the world’s end some people think they are. They’re just movies kind of stating the obvious at times, offering insight in-between and in the end, you sit there going “Huh. So that was that.”
What’s there left to say, then? Well-made movie, excellently done, bland story, good dialog, skippable sex scenes that serve no purpose other than shock value, good acting. Interesting ending, not worth hanging around four hours for, though.
Huh. So that was that.
Nymphomaniac, part II, opens in Swiss cinemas on April 3rd. Here’s a trailer: