Sunday, 23 February 2014

Lars and the real girl: Nymphomaniac Review

The crux of Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier's latest wilful expedition into the jungle of human behaviour, is probably the moment in the second volume of the four-hour theatrical cut when Joe, the jaded connoisseur of carnal pleasures played respectively as a young woman and a middle-aged woman by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, defiantly rejects the label of 'sex addict' thrust upon her by a self-help group, identifying instead with the title given to her by the film. 'I am a Nymphomaniac, and I love myself as one' she declares, before walking away proudly, leaving her shell-shocked fellow patients in her wake.

  At the beginning, Joe is found beaten and unconscious in a gloomy alleyway by a bookish middle-aged virgin called Seligman, who carries the mysterious woman to his nearby apartment and tends to her wounds whilst she recounts the story of her life from childhood to her present situation. It quickly becomes apparent that it has been a life ruled by sexual adventure (not to mention misadventure), and sensual excess. But although Joe warns her mild-mannered confessor that it will be a 'moral' tale, any such expectations of proselytising are quickly shattered by the film's freewheeling, wonderfully mercurial structure.

  As Joe sees it, and as Von Trier obviously wants to suggest to us, the diagnosis of 'sex addict' would seek to make her simply a passive victim, gripped by a pathological disorder beyond her control. This is the depiction that we find in Steve McQueen's Shame, informed by the language and the worldview of psychiatry, where Michael Fassbender's life is ruined by his almost vampiric dependency upon sexual gratification. But it is no such straightforwardly 'moral' perspective that drives Von Trier's exploration of the subject.

  The antiquated, almost mythic idea of a 'nymphomaniac', allows Joe to see herself and us to see her as having assumed a liberating agency and self-determination divorced from what she comes to see as the assimilating and neutralising tendencies of society, sinister forces cloaked in a benign promise of treatment.

  Of course, although this moment with the self-help group may represent a small victory for Joe, obviously it doesn't make her chosen way of life any easier or more comfortable. She exposes herself to a torrent of heartache, abuse, degradation, and loneliness in her struggle for sexual freedom.

  Oddly, to return to Steve McQueen, Nymphomaniac can be seen as a continuation of some of the themes raised in the Brit's latest acclaimed drama, 12 Years A Slave. Solomon Northup's story is one of overcoming adversity and escaping bondage, where the promise of freedom represents the end point of his journey. Von Trier takes up where McQueen leaves off, exploring the issue of what happens once freedom has supposedly been obtained in a modern democracy.

  Nymphomaniac challenges the notion that humans want freedom. Most of us, it intimates, are more interested in security, comfort, and belonging. Joe, somebody seemingly more committed to the concept of freedom than most of us, doesn't even seem particularly convinced by it herself, repeatedly bemoaning the loss of loved ones brought about at least in part by her irrepressible sexual urges.

  Von Trier's movie is more complex than McQueen's because it does not present freedom as an unchangeable goal, but as something nebulous and painful that must be constantly negotiated, bargained with and assessed by every individual. It is, for Von Trier, not so much the key to a set of chains, as it is a magnificent coat of thorns.

  Steve McQueen portrays suffering as an aberration, whether it is the mortal anguish of an individual or the physical subjugation of an entire people; something which has been allowed to encroach upon the equilibrium of life and which can be eradicated by moral effort. Von Trier sees suffering as the condition of life: to be alive is to make destructive choices and to commit all types of self-sacrifice, therefore to live is to suffer.

  If all of this makes Nymphomaniac sound overly dour, then don't worry. Whilst it certainly has its share of tragedy and gloom, particularly in the more downbeat second volume, the prevailing mood is one of sly humour and aesthetic playfulness. Von Trier has stated that the drama represents a new cinematic genre he has named 'digressionism'. As with most of his statements, this should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt, but there is a very distinctive flavour to the way the story unfolds. There's a touch of Tristram Shandy to the way the narrative is frequently interrupted by Seligman's increasingly eccentric analogies and flights of intellectual fancy, with the autodidact pulling together subjects as disparate as fly-fishing, the music of Bach, and the death of Edgar Allan Poe by way of commentary on Joe's experiences.

  Likewise, Von Trier never lets a single tone become too well established before he pulls the rug out from under us. For instance, by suddenly blasting into a thunderous Rammstein song after a near-silent and serenely beautiful opening montage of snowflakes falling in a back alley, or mixing comedy with pathos in the scene where Uma Thurman's scorned wife (a scene-stealing performance) confronts Joe and her adulterous husband in our hero's flat, dragging along their three young boys for the ensuing fireworks. It all adds up to an uncommonly addictive and entertaining piece of cinema, rarely dragging despite its indulgent length.

  At the end of Nymphomaniac, very little has been resolved, and as an audience it's unclear how we're meant to feel about Joe's experiences. A shocking, unexpected crime is committed, the screen cuts to black, and Von Trier gleefully hurls the jigsaw pieces that he has collected for our perusal up into the air again, inviting us to assemble them ourselves. In effect, to step in and assume the role of Seligman, the fascinated interpreter of Joe's perplexing story. This is, perhaps, one mark of a great filmmaker as opposed to a merely good one. A good filmmaker makes films that are about something, whereas a great filmmaker makes film that could be about many things. McQueen remains only a good filmmaker at present, but with Nymphomaniac Lars once again demonstrates himself to be a filmmaker of strange, diabolic genius.