Nymphomaniac opens like overwrought noir. Darkness. It cuts to water dripping from corrugated roof onto garbage cans. Eventually the camera settles, idly, on a battered Charlotte Gainsborough lying in an alley. Power chords announce the introduction of the next major character: a prim Stellan Skarsgård dressing (contrast, right?). He finds her body and nurses her to consciousness. His manner is kind but formal; there’s a sense in which if this woman doesn’t do all the talking and fast he would. Gainsborough has to listen to Skarsgård reminisce about fly fishing; the film cuts to him to the young Skarsgard baiting a hook, to a classic fishing tome, to a fly itself. When she announces, over a tea cup the size of a cloaca, “I suppose I’ll have to tell you the whole story,” I saw Skarsgård flinch, slightly. So did I.
Titling sections like chapters and returning to Skarsgard, whom we learn is named Seligman, for commentary, Nymphomaniac aims to reproduce the effect of a late twentieth century European novel written by Milan Kundera or Umberto Eco. This film though insists on the chronological trudge: childhood to young adulthood. The woman’s father is Christian Slater, a doctor with unidentified accent and a forehead as high as Everest. He loves telling her about trees: “He considered it part of my education.” As a teen she befriends B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), with whom she learns how awesome polygamous sex is. “It’s a very clear parallel to fish in the stream,” Seligman purrs (he almost needs a pipe). “The biggest fish choose the best positions.” Also: “Oral sex became the eye of the angler.” Aphoristic wisdom marks this script. “We were committed to fighting a love-fixated society,” the young woman (now played by Stacy Martin) tells Seligman. “Love is merely lust with jealously added.” On screen flashes in number form (in a handsome font) the number of times the boy humps her — very Peter Greenaway. Her confidence swollen, she and B write an anthem called “Mea Vulva,” ho ho. Someone is being set up for a fall.
Cut in two parts (the second in theaters soon and on demand now), Nymphomaniac is a Lars Von Trier film. This means a grueling time is promised, and like a CIA agent given a terrorist suspect he will keep promises if it induces psychological pain on his victims. From Emily Watson and Bjork to Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, Von Trier specializes in putting actresses through ordeals. To say, as a press release, does, that he’s “fascinated by women” is akin to the Orkin man confessing he’s fascinated by roaches. When we learn that Gainsborough is named Joe an hour into the picture, it makes sense: she’s a woman conceived by a man to act like a man. What on first impression looks like a laudable attempt to record the permutations of female sexuality curdles into punishing these women by plotting their movements on stupid virgin-whore schema. Von Trier regards Joe through the eyes of men. Although he may argue that Seligman mediates the narrative, that’s precisely the problem: Von Trier robs her of autonomy, of the right to shape her own story. We know damn well that when Seligman (Skarsgard) explains how delirium tremens works Joe will admit she suffers from a form of it. A friend in Manhattan said several people laughed in the theater after this fraught moment. It’s the only sane reaction: Von Trier shapes Gainsborough’s scenes like a sleazo luring a woman for parking lot sex after impressing her with his knowledge of Bach and polyphony.
Nymphomaniac has three extended arias: a preposterous one in which Uma Thurman plays the vengeful wife (is there another kind in Von Trier’s world?) who has some sort of breakdown in front of her children and cheating husband and Joe like Liv Ullmann in an early seventies Bergman film; the agonizing death of Slater from delirium tremens, a sequence that also includes a cut from nurses cleaning Slater’s shit-smeared ass to Joe humping an orderly on a hospital bed (not to worry: Seligman comforts her with “It is extremely common to seek sex during a crisis”); and Joe’s parrying and darting affair with Jerome, played by Shia LaBeouf. Once lovers, they reunite when she realizes she’s a secretary in his office. After an awkward elevator chat he reenacts the scene in Belle de Jour in which the trick plays a housekeeper to Catherine Deneuve’s ruthless mistress, only this time with tea and cakes. Von Trier gives him an accent too and cool hair, which helps because seven years after his breakthrough LaBeouf is as erotic as a hat rack.
There’s supposed to be more explicit material hacked from the original four-hour cut, but the scenes with the actors’ clothes on are more pornographic than the sex. Wanting to get the audience off on his erudition and distancing devices, Von Trier doesn’t make a single unpredictable move — how pornography functions, in other words. Nymphomaniac is a muddle of allusions and winks. His daring is like a child with a blanket pretending to be a ghost, such as when he films a scene of Sophie and Joe cavorting on a train to “Born to be Wild.” Movies like this and Dogville and Antichrist have shriveled the achievement of Breaking the Waves; it’s impossible to watch it now without reprimanding myself for missing how contemptuously he regards women. Even Melancholia, which had many risible moments, at least showcased actors bouncing off each other, mitigating the impact of what Von Trier had in mind for the Dunst character. “I suppose she is what you’d call a cold bitch,” Joe says about her mother, i.e. what Von Trier thinks of sexy women.