For all the sex on display, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a hollow affair, says Simon Mernagh.
Whereas 2011’s Melancholia was a stark, uncompromising look at the catastrophic effects of depression, in Nymphomaniac director Lars von Trier drenches the fascinating topic of sexual enlightenment with such repetitive amounts of shock value and oblique quasi-philosophical meandering, he delivers a repetitive, sluggish and remarkably shallow film.
Oh, and any movie featuring a regularly naked Shia LaBeouf instantly loses points in my book.
Capping off the trilogy that began with Antichrist and Melancholia, Nymphomaniac follows the sex-obsessed, self-described “bad human being”, Joe, whose compulsive behaviour drives her into deeper, progressively darker realms of human sexuality. Part I stars newcomer Stacy Martin as the adolescent and early twentysomething Joe, while Charlotte Gainsbourg takes the wheel (among other things) in Part II, narrating throughout to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård).
Von Trier’s ambitious drama will undergo several metamorphoses, depending on the willingness of different territories to showcase all five hours of explicit imagery. In Ireland, Nymphomaniac is available as two separate volumes, Kill Bill-style, with their own title cards, credits and even a “Coming up next on Nymphomaniac” montage at the tail-end of Part I to lure us back.
However, for all the orgasmic movie posters and vaudevillian sexual antics on display, Nymphomaniac is a strangely hollow affair. Just as films like Pasolini’s Salò wrap provocative displays of sexuality in a pompous air of alleged sophistication, without offering a real reason to take them seriously, Nymphomaniac is simply too preoccupied with rattling stuffy fuddy-duddy sensibilities to hit many G-spots.
It’s von Trier’s trademark production values that elevate Nymphomaniac above the middling sexual odysseys of sexploitation flicks. His veteran director of photography, Manuel Alberto Claro, captures some truly beautiful shots; a solitary tear slithering down Joe’s leg, and some truly grim, dark interiors emerge among all the steaminess. Audiophiles take note: the hypnotic pitter-patter of raindrops on metal bins coupled with the equally metallic Rammstein soundtrack is stunning.
Dedicated supporting turns from Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen and Uma Thurman, whose single devastating scene steals the show, ultimately overshadow the leads. Gainsbourg is painted with an intentionally bland brush, while LaBeouf mumbles the worst British accent ever committed to film. Skarsgård does his best with that lousy “and then what happened?” plot structure and Stacy Martin, bless her heart, is stiffer than many of the chosen company.
Although plenty of substances are involved, Nymphomaniac remains a textbook case of style over substance. Any von Trier movie is an extraordinary sensory assault deserving of attention, but as an artistic statement from such an enigmatic auteur, Nymphomaniac feels empty.
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