Nymph()Maniac: Volumes I and II: Movie Review
Cast: Stacy Martin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgaard, Christian Slater, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman
Director: Lars Von Trier
Cinema's enfant terrible returns to fire off another salvo of provocation and start up another round of taboo discussion.
This time round, following a series of O face posters, and a tease campaign that's been guaranteed to whip all and sundry into a frenzy, and over a more cinema friendly 4 hour, 2 volume cut (though he has worked on a 5-and-a-half-hour director's cut), he tells the tale of Joe (played in later years by Charlotte Gainsbourg and in younger form by newcomer Stacy Martin). After being discovered beaten in an alleyway by Skarsgaard's Seligman, Joe takes to telling him of her life and loves and how she came to be in said alleyway.
Nymph()maniac Volume 1 deals with Joe's more formative years, her relationship with her ailing father (played by Christian Slater) and her coming to terms with who she is. Divvied up into five chapters in Volume I, it also looks at her relationship with her apparent love Jerome (played by Shia LaBeouf who delivers one of the worst English accents ever committed to celluloid). It's clearly aiming for the more inflammatory, as it shows a couple of young girls trawling a train for men to sleep with as a competition to one up each other and win a tub of candy. Yet, it's also incredibly playful in among the graphic moments. Seligman is to all intents and purposes a monk, who's chosen books to life and who draws various analogies with Joe's choices to fly fishing. It's hilarious at times how shoehorned in that becomes but it serves as a philosophical bent to the film as well - parallels between sex and sin are drawn, the Fibonacci numbers are mentioned in among Joe's apparent regrets as she rhapsodises over her life.
The crowning moment of Nymph()maniac Volume 1 comes from Uma Thurman's appearance as a slighted woman who brings her children to Joe's house so that they can see the "whoring bed". It's a shocking scene as it teeters on extremely uncomfortable, pathetically sad and something more volatile.
Nymph()maniac Volume 1 ends on an almost unoriginal note - before images of plenty of sex are thrown in as a trailer for Nymph()maniac Volume II. It's touches like this that leave you unsure whether von Trier's playing with you and your expectations or the marketers have decided the most provocative moments will make you feel something. But the thing is, Nymphomaniac is not actually as button-pushing or as controversial as it purports to be. It's almost as if von Trier's lost some of his bite in among the playful narrative moments and close ups of phalluses; you roll your eyes in almost boredom rather than in anger. It's the most stunning part of Nymphomaniac - that a once notorious auteur has had to rely more on the marketing than the celluloid content to shock.
Nymph()maniac Volume II disappoints as it runs out of steam - it goes more for graphic rather than the philosophical debate and while Gainsbourg commands the screen, the final moments, just when you think von Trier's done more to combat accusations of misogyny and that sex is art, he throws in a moment that makes you throw up your hands in frustration as the screen goes to black.
All in all, Nymph()maniac is nowhere as bad or as notorious as you'd expect - it's certainly not titillating or erotic, merely functional in parts. You may actually be more surprised by what you see, but if you're a Von Trier connoisseur, you'll definitely feel the controversial auteur isn't as bad as he could be and that's perhaps the biggest shock of the film.