On Saturday, I joined thousands of avid cinema fans all across the country for a back-to-back debut screening of the brand new Lars Von Trier film Nymphomaniac. The entire event lasted just under six hours – it included a live introduction from London and a post screening Q&A session – so it was a feature designed for only the most dedicated of Trier fans.
As anybody who has ever seen a Von Trier film will know, it’s pretty much useless to step out of the cinema and ask yourself whether or not you liked it. For one thing, films like Nymphomaniac and Antichrist aren’t meant to be enjoyed in the traditional sense of the word – they’re created to be an experience, to be like nothing that has come before. If you leave the cinema feeling disorientated, nonplussed and slightly abused – you’ve just been through the wringer with a Von Trier film.
I cannot stop thinking about it.
At this point, I’m still only twenty percent sure of what I think about Nymphomaniac – all I do know is that it won’t leave my head. And that I should have seen that ending coming a mile off, but I didn’t – very clever Von Trier, very clever indeed.
I can tell you that everything that you have read about the film is true. I’ve never seen so many erect members or vaginas on screen at one time – it is an intensely sexual film. The sex scenes are graphic, intimate and, understandably, difficult for some to watch. I’m certainly no stranger to cinematic nudity, but even I shuffled awkwardly in my seat as the first sex scene of the film showed a teenage girl losing her virginity to a somewhat lacklustre mechanic. Although to be honest, I don’t know what was more embarrassing – the anal sex or Shia LaBeouf’s horrendous mockney accent. Yes, it really is that bad.
You know how some critics like to claim that Jaws isn’t really a film about sharks? Well, Nymphomaniac isn’t really a film about sex. If you can’t see past the swinging cocks and bouncing breasts after the first thirty minutes, this film isn’t for you. It isn’t remotely arousing and it really isn’t meant to be – I think that anybody keen to call Nymphomaniac nothing but pornography has missed the point quite spectacularly.
It’s a film about how the incessant, unceasing search for sexual gratification can mean a life without love, truth, honesty or happiness. It is NOT film about how wonderful it must be to be a nymphomaniac. Over the course of four increasingly intense hours, we see a woman (Joe) become both defined and destroyed by lust. At first, her sexual hi-jinks appear to be nothing hut youthful hubris. At age fifteen, she plays naughty games with her best friend – the girl with the most sexual conquests at the end of a long train journey wins a bag of sweets.
This is followed by years of seemingly carefree gratification – Joe learns how to manipulate one man after another, whilst also getting her fill of no strings action. It is made clear that she has an unusually high libido, perhaps even dangerously high. At one point, she confesses to fucking seven or eight men every single night – and holding down a full time job. Now, the whole film is set around a very particular framework. The story of Joe is told in her own words, to a kindly stranger who rescues her from a snowy alleyway after a mysterious accident – the reason for her beaten and bloody condition remains unclear until the very end of the tale.
The stranger, Seligman, is an enigmatic and philosophical soul who pads out her story with fantastical tales about everything from fly fishing to Bach, rock climbing, knots and Edgar Allen Poe. It constantly surprised me how warm this outer framework of the film could be – for almost four hours, the relationship between Joe and Seligman manages to be extremely witty, curiously comforting and deeply moving. It provides a necessary (and regular) respite from the increasingly harsh nature of Joe’s sexual epic. Nevertheless, not knowing how or why Joe came to be in the alleyway in the first place means that there is also a sense of apprehension to these scenes.
The second volume of Nymphomaniac is where things get difficult. The young Joe has become irrevocably damaged by her constant need for sex. The first volume ends with the loss of her ability to orgasm, a condition which sees her fall into a deep depression. Her attempts to regain sexual feeling become more and more desperate – she solicits sex from strangers on the street, her marriage falls apart and she eventually meets a mysterious man who specialises in sexual gratification through more painful means.
Whilst Joe does indeed get her orgasm back, it doesn’t mean that things get any easier. The final third of the film is arguably the most challenging of all – at this point, Joe is middle aged and her only child has been taken into care. In many ways, she has become bitter and cruel – she now uses her wealth of sexual experience to get the better of others. As the film draws to a close, we watch her get entangled with a beautiful teenage girl. It seems obvious what will happen next, but Joe is so wrapped up in her own pain that she can’t see the precariousness of her situation.
To give away the ultimate ending of Nymphomaniac is to smash the wonderfully delicate tale of power and submission that Von Trier has been tirelessly laying down for four long hours. Whilst audiences are inwardly cringing at scenes of female lubrication, sexual sadism, cunnilingus and anal sex – there is a far quieter story being told. It’s a story that will blow your mind, if you’ll only let it.
As for me, I’m counting the days until I can watch it again.