Nymphomaniac: Volume One
Writer/director Lars von Trier has been in a bit of a slump lately. After having had some success in the past with films like “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark,” his two latest films (“Antichrist” and “Melancholia”) showed that he hasn’t had much to offer to the cinematic community in the past few years. In fact, I think it can easily be said that “Antichrist” is one of the worst films made in the last ten years or so with its gratuitous scenes of sex and violence. “Melancholia” wasn’t quite so bad, but it did suffer heavily from its lack of plot and lax pacing. Now, aiming to be his usual controversial self, Von Trier has decided to delve straight into the subject of sex for his next feature, “Nymphomaniac,” a film that has been split into two parts in order to spare theater-goers from having to sit through all four hours of it at once, because if Von Trier has shown us anything of late, it’s that his films can be a lot to digest.
The film begins with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding a young woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) on the street. She has apparently been the victim of a beating, so he offers to help her and brings her back to his apartment. Here she begins to recount the story of her childhood with her father (Christian Slater) and how she became obsessed with sex as a young woman, lusting after every man who would make out with her, with a particular emphasis on the man who was her first and would eventually become her boss (Shia LaBeouf). In between parts of her story, Seligman offers commentary, comparing her addiction to his hobby of fishing. In the same vein, Joe compares some of his other hobbies, such as a book of Poe’s works and a musical selection he frequents, to other parts of her life, leading to a twisted tale of young woman who thinks of herself simply as a “bad human being.”
Not only has Von Trier divided his film into two volumes, he has also divided the volumes into chapters. However, even without it officially being split up in this fashion, the film would still have a very noticeable feeling of being episodic. As the film goes on, you hope that these various portions of her life will begin to add up to something, but unfortunately, at least as far as “Volume One” goes, they don’t add up to much of anything at all. In fact, by the end of these two hours, you’ll come away knowing two things: 1) Joe is obsessed with sex, and 2) She had a special relationship with her father.
You could make the argument that she starts to learn the difference between lust and love as she begins to have certain feelings for someone, but the idea is never explored beyond a casual mention. This is one of those concepts that I hope will be explored further in the next film because right now, it’s the best thing that this project has going for it. Von Trier seems to have started with something very basic (sex addiction) and piled a lot of superfluous filler around it, mainly a multitude of sex scenes (a few are to be expected obviously, but it pretty much becomes an obsession to fill it with as many as he can) and Seligman trying to relate her experiences to fishing.
On a similar note, the film has a kind of random feeling about it as Joe finds things around the room to relate to her story. She points out the book of Poe’s work, causing Seligman to talk about how he died, which Joe in turn relates to how her father died. Then there’s the Bach piece that Seligman describes as having three “voices” that comprise it, to which Joe compares to three of her lovers. These sections could have been integrated in a much better way instead of having the characters make the connections in such a lazy and sporadic fashion. As it is, they just come off as a couple of silly coincidences.
Returning to the episodic structure, it’s rather ironic that Joe ends up describing it so perfectly. At one point, Seligman asks her how a certain episode affected her life, to which she responds “not at all.” That’s the way the audience ends up feeling about most of these episodes of her life. We end up feeling unaffected, uninvolved, and quite indifferent, and as far as Joe is concerned, except for the episode in which her father becomes gravely ill, she seems rather unaffected as well. We’ve already seen that Von Trier has had major issues with plot and characters in the past. Sadly, it looks like they still remain a problem for him.
This first volume of “Nymphomaniac” is not all bad. The performances are admirable, particularly those of Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, and there are a handful of scenes that are genuinely funny. In particular, there’s one great scene featuring Uma Thurman as a wife who tries to shame her husband by bringing their children to Joe’s apartment so they can see “the whoring bed.” It’s another scene that doesn’t really need to be there, but I’m glad it was, because it does provide a good laugh in a film that doesn’t have much else.
Hopefully things will pick up in “Volume Two,” but I’m not going to hold my breath based on what I’ve seen so far from this first film. Thus far, it’s been clear that Von Trier doesn’t have that much material for this project, and so it ends up being a rather detrimental decision to try and stretch it out as much as he has. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that his project focuses on a sex-obsessed young woman, but when his project doesn’t have anything to say about the subject, that becomes another matter.
Nymphomaniac: Volume Two
Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Volume One” had presented a number of problems, including an episodic structure and a lack of material to justify such a long feature, with hopes that the second part of his opus would rectify these issues, or at least justify the four hours that he’s asked audiences to invest in it. Unfortunately, as we drift into “Nymphomaniac: Volume Two,” we find that things have not changed very much. In fact, they become even worse, with the prevalent problems of before merely becoming compounded.
This half of the tale finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) continuing to tell her story of sex addiction to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). At this point, she has lost feeling in her private area, which eventually leads her partner, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), to suggest that she try having sex with other men. She tries this for a while, which eventually brings her to a particular man (Jamie Bell) who is into some very strange behaviors. After this episode of her life, she finds herself working for a shady collection agency run by L (Willem Dafoe). L believes that she’s doing a very good job, but that she should start to think about who will eventually replace her, leading her to a young girl (Mia Goth) who becomes her protégé. As their relationship continues to grow, Joe must continue to deal with the consequences of her addiction while also trying to cope with the difficult task of remaining abstinent.
As with the previous installment, “Volume Two” is split up into individual chapters that focus on different areas of Joe’s life, and just like before, we quickly come to realize that these aren’t adding up to much of anything. Whereas in the first film it at least felt like there was some semblance of a story going on, this time it feels as though there is no relationship between the different episodes at all. We bounce from Joe trying out other men to her masochistic activities to her working for a collection agency and nurturing a young girl whose parents are both criminals.
All the while, the story is continually interrupted so that Seligman can get a word in, comparing certain events in Joe’s life to religion, music, and other various things. Looking back on Von Trier’s tale as a whole, it is very likely that it would have worked better overall without the “present day” section crammed into it, as all it does is make it feel as though the story stops and starts over and over again, which, as you can imagine, gets rather annoying after a while. This is particularly true because these portions of the film don’t add anything to the overall narrative. Seligman does try to tie everything together with a little speech at the end, but it’s nothing that the audience couldn’t have figured out for themselves.
In fact, this would have gone a long way towards not only making the narrative much less jarring by preventing it from having to switch back and forth, but it also would have helped bring the bloated runtime down considerably, perhaps even allowing it to be just one film running at a little over two hours. There is no guarantee that it would have been a better film if this had been done (it’s not clear whether it could have been salvaged at all), but rather that it would have at least flowed better with less distractions to Joe’s story.
The feeling one gets overall with “Nymphomaniac” is that Lars Von Trier had a series of ideas for stories about sex and was merely looking for a way to tie them all together, no matter how loose that tie may be. What he ended up with is exactly what he started out with: several small stories that don’t really go together or add up to anything when combined. To make matters worse, he throws in an ending that clearly shows that he had no idea how to conclude his tale, resorting to a finale that comes completely out of left field and doesn’t fit with what we’ve seen at all. It’s as though he threw his hands in the air and then wrote down the first random thing that came to mind.
Then again, you could easily describe this entire project in a similar fashion. Whatever Von Trier was trying to get at, whatever point he was trying to make, gets completely lost because every episode feels like a random happening in Joe’s life. This is not only detrimental to the story he’s trying to tell, but also to the audience’s patience, who, as noted, are asked to endure four hours of this tale. Perhaps the other reason the film was split up, aside from allowing a break in between, was to give those who weren’t getting anything from the experience the chance to save themselves from the other half. For future screenings and releases of the film, it would be wise to add a small disclaimer after the first film. Something short and as simple as “No, it doesn’t get any better.”
Both volumes of "Nymphomaniac" come to Blu-ray in a 2.35:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. Throughout the films, the picture remains exceptionally clear and sharp, allowing you to see every bit of the their gratuitousness in perfect clarity. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a little quiet, but it's not particularly necessary to make an adjustment since everything can still be heard fairly clearly. Overall, the films have been given outstanding treatment, leaving little room for complaints.
The Characters, The Director, and The Sex: Three featurettes that feature interviews with several cast members as they discuss these particular areas of the film. The only decent inclusion here is the first one, in which the actors give their thoughts on the various characters, while the other two don't really tell you much of anything.
Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" is an ambitious epic devoted to sex that ultimately suffers far too much from its episodic nature and the fact that these various chapters never come together into a cohesive whole. It's a film that becomes much too distracted from itself thanks to the completely unnecessary modern-day segments, which merely makes the film feel like a random set of silly coincidences. Von Trier obviously wanted to say something about the nature of sex with his four-hour opus, but due to a multitude of issues, including various plot and character problems, he ultimately ends up with a four-hour mess.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Afflicted, House of Cards: Season Two, The Lego Movie, Ernest & Celestine, 13 Sins, Joe, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Tim's Vermeer, Alan Partridge, RoboCop (2014), Alexander: The Ultimate Cut, Ravenous, Son of God, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection, Stalingrad, The Monuments Men, Pompeii, 3 Days to Kill, Grand Piano, Her, Orange is the New Black: Season One, I, Frankenstein, Final Exam, Evilspeak
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.