The Girl Can’t Help It
By Adam Nayman

Dir. Lars von Trier, Denmark, Magnolia Pictures

Ralph Waldo Emerson once advised: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” One hundred and fifty years later, his fellow social critic Lars von Trier has taken this advice to heart. The Danish director doesn’t make movies so much as construct Catherine wheels, upon which he breaks his characters—and sometimes the actors playing them, an occupational hazard. And yet the image of von Trier as Medievalist Grand Inquisitor—which first came into focus during the climax of Epidemic, in which a young woman contracts Black Plague via hypnotic suggestion and dies horribly in front of a formal dinner gathering—is complicated by his insistence that he sees his flock of sacrificial lambs as distaff authorial surrogates. Call it the act of killing oneself, more and more spectacularly, over and over again.

Whether or not you believe von Trier on this point—or about anything else that he chooses to hold forth on—it’s clear that Antichrist, Melancholia, and the new Nymphomaniac (all four hours and ten minutes of it, split for commercial release, Kill Bill–style into two parts) tie together as tightly as the “Golden Hearts” and (only two-thirds completed) “America” trilogies before them. The pretentiousness and artistic ambition of a man who added a “von” to his surname in his twenties to evoke Stroheim and Sternberg can only be expressed via grand unified statements. In lieu of reading too deeply into their aesthetic and thematic similarities, however, you could just note that they all star Charlotte Gainsbourg, who seems the gamest of von Trier’s manqués, and not only because she keeps coming back for more where Nicole Kidman and Björk begged off. With her hard, dark eyes and plasticine features, the forty-three-year old French actress is a dream prop for a director who likes bending people out of shape.

In Antichrist, Gainsbourg played a nameless woman whose graduate research into the historical practice of burning witches yielded the revelation that the women at the stake were, in fact, evil and deserving of their fate. The typically wry von Trierian punchline, though, was that this malignantly misogynist worldview was generated in resistance to her controlling, dismissive husband (Willem Dafoe). Melancholia flipped the script by casting Gainsbourg as the rational older sister of the apocalyptically fearful Justine (Kirsten Dunst); as the film goes on, however, Gainsbourg’s Claire comes to realize and fatalistically accept that her (and everyone’s) days are numbered despite the protestations of her dismissive, tsk-tsk-ing spouse (Kiefer Sutherland).

Joe, the Nymphomanic, splits the difference between these two characters: she believes that she is “the worst person in the world,” and doesn’t seem too broken up about it, either. First glimpsed sprawled helplessly in an alley, she begins where most of von Trier’s other heroines end up—the first of many hints that the director’s fourteenth feature is, among other things, a sort of greatest-hits compendium of his career to date. And the self-references aren’t limited to his own body of work, either. Taken in by a kindly (?) bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), Joe meekly begins the process of licking her wounds, and the low light of Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography does not obscure the bruises on her face. If von Trier appears in his own films in the surrogate forms of his female characters, is Joe’s battered countenance not a reference to his own bruised reputation after the whole “persona non grata” affair at Cannes in 2011?

Leaving aside the fact that the “Persona Non Grata” t-shirts that von Trier has been modeling in public in recent months offer a more succinct artist’s statement on the incident—the perfect accessory for a provoc-auteur who has always worn his subversion and self-deprecation equally on his sleeves—a reading of Nymphomaniac along these lines is well within the boundaries of common sense. As far back as 1996’s Breaking the Waves, von Trier’s films have been about the clash of individual ideals and social norms—the latter usually represented as harshly repressive—and because he’s never been one to toe the line politically (demolishing anarcho-leftist collectives in The Idiots as gleefully as just-folks-fascism in Dogville), the meta-narrative has always mirrored the ones on the screen: Every Man For Himself, and Lars Against All.

Von Trier’s martyr complex doesn’t necessarily mean that his films are always complex about martyrdom, but it’s become increasingly difficult to dismiss him (as many have and a few still do) of simply indulging his theater of cruelty sensibilities in movie after movie. The closer von Trier’s work edges toward some sort of explicitly personal revelation (as it did subtly and hilariously in the artist-is-absent subtext of the underrated The Boss of It All) the more slack some of us are inclined to cut him, partially because it forces him to lean less on his coldly virtuosic presentational skills, and partially because that sense of confession often underwrites vital cinema. Michael Haneke, who may be von Trier’s only real competition in the post-eighties European auteur sweepstakes (factoring in things like scope, influence, and acclaim), has made a nice career of implicating the audience in his brilliantly engineered (and occasionally Resnaisian) Rube Goldberg contraptions; by contrast, von Trier has increasingly begun pointing the finger at himself.

Viewed this way, Nymphomaniac is something of a sarcastic thumbs-up for Lars the iconoclast: its scenario of a woman meticulously narrating her own erotic awakening—which then turns into a kind of all-night bender, spanning decades and the best body-and-soul baring efforts of two actresses (Gainsbourg and the sensational Stacy Martin)—is just as easily seen as a sort of run-on director’s commentary track. Each of the episodes of Joe’s salaciously picaresque narrative, which begins in childhood before accelerating to teenage deflowering and self-styled sexual revolution, corresponds in certain ways to von Trier’s other movies: an extended flashback to 17-year-old Joe strategically fucking her way through a crowded European commuter train nods to Europa in the choice of location and Breaking the Waves in the vinyl red hot pants she’s wearing over her knickers; a later sequence where she presides over the agonizingly drawn-out death of her father (Christian Slater) in an eerily depopulated hospital evokes The Kingdom (while the brief switch to black-and-white cinematography, punctuated by blood-red titles, is straight out of Epidemic).

At times, it’s as if von Trier was remaking The Five Obstructions with himself in both roles, but then one of the things that has made his career so remarkable is how he’s managed to retain his artistic voice (the dulcet yet commanding tones of a stage hypnotist) while throwing it all over the place—from the Tarkovskian squalor of The Element of Crime and Europa to the Greenaway-ian austerity measures in Dogville and Manderlay to the moist Dreyer-isms of the “Golden Heart” films to the “proto-Strinbergian-Norwegian death metal psychohorror” (to quote one colleague) of Antichrist. It’s not an understatement to say that all of these modes are present in Nymphomanic, and that he’s tacked on a few more borrowed ones for good measure: behold the first film to integrate the scabrous western-sex-tourist satire of Ulrich Seidl and the storytelling sensibility of Keyser Soze. (Not even Ken Loach gets away safe, what with the repetitive invocation “My Name is Joe… and I’m a nymphomanic.”)

To follow up on the Bryan Singer shout-out: as Nymphomaniac keeps calling attention to the careful construction—and comical contrivance—of Joe’s story via the interjections of Seligman, who is beautifully played by Skarsgård as a study in deceptive repose. This harmless, “non-Zionist” Jew (“You don’t have to be anti-Semitic to be anti-Zionist,” he clarifies; “Oh, Lars,” we sigh) may fix his wounded guest with a compassionate expression and invite her to unburden her soul at length, but in his placating tone, he’s a close cousin to von Trier’s other malevolent man-splainners (including Paul Bettany in Dogville and Willem Dafoe in Antichrist). The surest sign that Seligman is suspicious is his confession, early on in in Part II, that he’s a virgin—a red flag in a movie in thrall to its main protagonist’s insatiable sex drive. For every one of Joe’s anecdotes of inscrutable emotional/biological compulsion, Seligman offers a literary or historical corollary, ostensibly to contextualize or even normalize the sources of her shame, but really to assert some sort of authority in matters where he is a novice. And Joe, who is not nearly so vulnerable as she seems in the present tense, knows it: “That was one of your weaker digressions,” she scoffs on the soundtrack after he attempts to answer her tale of handcrafted “blood knots”—all the better for whipping her with, my dear—with tips about mountaineering.

This back-and-forth rhythm between Joe’s life story and Seligman’s tactfully nonjudgmental reception is a kind of dialectic, and Nymphomaniac is ultimately a dryly theoretical film—lubricated, of course, by its variously and variably pornographic interludes, which are, among other things, allusions to the director’s Zentropa production company and its well-stocked catalogue of hardcore videos (which have been hailed by no less than Cosmopolitan for their appeal to female viewers). Viewers can take their pick of which one of the many out-front structuring devices is the true skeleton key to the piece: a midfilm exchange about the differences between the “Eastern” and “Western” churches—the contrast between Grace and Guilt—cues the gradual shift from rambunctiousness and bedroom farce of Part 1 to the abasement of Part 2, while an extended mediation on the musical structure of a Bach composition introduces the concept of “polyphony” well after von Trier has exercised it via his multi-channel approach to narrative. What’s arguably most compelling about Nymphomaniac is its relentlessly Cartesian organization, a mind/body split that creates all kinds of tension and resonance while steadfastly refusing to integrate its components at a granular level. The impression is of a film as divided against itself as its protagonist—which is of course to say that von Trier knows exactly what he’s doing even as he seems to be throwing up his hands in surrender to the irreconcilable agony of it all.

The only place where von Trier’s control wavers (although this could again be part of the design) is in some of the ensemble acting. A longtime fan of stunt-casting—remember Lauren Bacall desultorily raking imaginary leaves in Dogville?—von Trier has increasingly fallen in love with the idea of familiar international actors in unlikely roles: the sight of 24’s Jack Bauer futilely staring down an honest-to-God ticking-clock scenario in the second half of Melancholia was a great joke, for instance. With this in mind, Nymphomaniac’s all-stars can be divided into two categories: the von Trier regulars (Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier), who pop up in small but occasionally pivotal roles to heighten the sense of “Lars, This is Your Life;” and the sore-thumb newcomers, such as Jamie Bell and Shia LaBeouf, whose presence may or may not be at the behest of international distributors and financiers and who never quite overcome their own incongruousness. LaBeouf is especially distracting since his character, a bike mechanic-turned-middle-manager named Jerome, is the Obscure Object of Desire that Joe follows for most of the story—drawn to his coarseness and disinterest like a moth to a flame.

If LaBeouf and Bell (playing a low-rent S&M specialist who insists that his clients procure their own personalized riding crops) feel like outliers, Uma Thurman interjects her own star presence in a way that throws off the equilibrium all together—the Earth moves, as it were. Her extended cameo as a jilted wife who follows her philandering husband right to young Joe’s apartment door with tots in tow and proceeds to calmly ask the latter how many lives she thinks can ruin in a day is high-wire acting, and yet Thurman suggests an entire world of hurt underneath the dialogue (“Would it be okay if I showed the children the whoring bed?”). Ironically, considering his reputation as a torturer of actresses (two of whom parlayed their abuse into best actress citations at Cannes), von Trier is the ideal director for a performer looking for a career pick-me-up, since he paradoxically allows them plenty of space within his often airless, controlled screenplays. Still unaccountably beautiful in her vaguely alien way, Thurman makes the most of her showcase; in the larger but more dispersed role of Joe’s beloved father, her fellow 1980s breakout baby Christian Slater has a little more trouble. It’s not just the weirdly affected accent (like most things in the nominally UK-set Nymphomaniac, Papa’s brogue feels regionally inauthentic)—it’s that von Trier has never had as much success with his male characters as his female ones. Skarsgård is such a marvelous actor that he’s able to make something of a sensitive-monster role already inhabited by the varied likes of Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe; that he’s not simply acted off the screen by Gainsbourg (the way Dafoe arguably was in parts of Antichrist) is impressive in and of itself.

Given its status as a determinedly axiomatic auteur text and the remarkable skill present at nearly every level of its presentation (editors Morten Hojberg and Molly Marlene Stensgaard do an amazing job giving each segment a sense of continuity even as the narrative and color-scheme keep flitting all over the place), not to mention the extreme pitch of its subject matter, it’s surprising that Nymphomaniac isn’t finally an overwhelming experience. Von Trier has used running time in the past to put movies over the top—Dogville’s entire apparatus serves to make redundancy and obviousness epic and yet while Nymphomaniac is admirably fleet and almost entirely free of dead spots, it does not accrue in power or mystery.

The aforementioned comparison to The Usual Suspects is not meant lightly, because Nymphomaniac comes complete with a last-second “twist”—a reversal that’s more rhetorical than narrative yet meant to turn our understanding of the material on a dime. Except it doesn’t; whereas many other exchanges in this very talky movie pull the double duty of being dramatically and intellectually stimulating (as well as being simultaneously hilarious and sobering), the final “revelation,”—experienced, significantly, by one character on behalf of another—merely puts words around something the movie has already indicated implicitly. Like any manufacturer of Catherine wheels worth his salt, Von Trier always has ways of making us talk; he might have been better off in Nymphomaniac leaving certain things unsaid.