How would you respond, having been closeted in a room for two hours with a madman from Scandinavia, if he invited you back for another two hours? Would you say, “I’m sorry, I have a prior engagement”? Or would you say, “What the hell. In for a kroner . . . ”
Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac is in two parts, much like the artistic brain of its director. Von Trier made Breaking the Waves, Dogville and Antichrist. For 30 years he has been a schismatic blend of Brechtian alienist (in both senses, distancing drama-maker and psychoanalyst) and monster romantic. His passport probably says “Profession: Enfant terrible”. His history includes a banned-at-Cannes furore – press conference babble about Nazism ruling him out of prizes favour in the year of his Melancholia – and howls from commentators about everything from misogyny (Antichrist) to mockery of the mentally ill (Idiots).
Nymph()maniac, for good or bad, is an unimaginable achievement from any other screen artist. It is shocking, epiphanic, sometimes brilliant, often grimly funny. It details the life, remembered in flashbacks, of a beaten-up woman called Joe ( Charlotte Gainsbourg), rescued from an alley by a sixtyish loner given to mournful philosophising (Stellan Skarsgård). In his dingy apartment, its walls veined like the interior of a womb, she pours her story of sexual derangement while he pours, in a “Shall I be mother?” way, sympathy, diagnosis, reassurance.
It’s a picaresque memory epic framed, or proscenium-arched, by the present. The “now” sets and dialogue are somewhat stagy. The “then” settings and stories are louche and wild-ranging, from the early flings of a sex-hungry teenage heroine (Stacy Martin as the young Joe) to the grown-up Gainsbourg, centre-screening herself in flashback as she recalls sessions with a cat-o’-nine-tailing male dominatrix (Jamie Bell, leaving Billy Elliot far behind) or a bout of double-entry sex with two black studs.
Don’t expect good PC behaviour from von Trier. Nymph()maniac – with that vulva-enshrining typescript of a title – may speak up right-on-ishly for womanhood, arguing that female promiscuity is vilified while male promiscuity gets three cheers in every pub. But a pre-troilist chat between a pair of buck-naked Afro-Europeans is presented as two rearing ebony organs in close-up with incidental voice-overs. Phallocentric, atavistic, right on the offending-stereotype-button.
If size counts, Nymph()maniac has no shortfall. By the end of four hours the concept “picaresque” has been serially used and abused, much like the film’s heroine. There’s a vision here, even so, that shapes the film’s prolix, promiscuous ends. Sexuality is a terrible, beautiful engine, like a tunnelling bore. If there’s a failure or mistake in direction it will cut through anything, destroying as it goes. Even then, suggests the movie, there are moments of demented transcendence. They can hold tragedy at bay or compensate for degradation with errant sublimity.
No movie this ambitious could survive without a sense of humour. There are mordant giggles and, in the first film, one stupendous moment of dark laughter. Watch for the scene with Uma Thurman and her two children making an educational visit to her husband and Joe’s adulterous love nest: “Would it be all right to show the children the whoring bed?” It is a comedy-nightmare vignette straight from Kafka or Strindberg. It’s as if the back of the screen or soundstage has suddenly opened up – as so often in von Trier’s cinema – to show us an ancestry of European dramatic bite and bile that goes back centuries.
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