The Lars von Trier opus on sex and love plays in and out of theaters
So, it should come as no surprise that his latest release, “Nymphomaniac,” comes in two parts, having played select festivals before unspooling thanks to a gradual rollout in exclusive large-market theaters and video on demand (VOD), and traffics in questions of sex and love. In particular, the self-defined – and self-diagnosed – sinful nature of a woman named Joe – played in the film’s present tense by von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg, and in flashbacks by Stacy Martin.
We encounter Gainsbourg’s Joe, beaten and seemingly left for dead in an alleyway, where the kindly and thoughtful Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds her and offers her tea and the comfort of his home. Before long, she’s recounting her punishingly deviant exploits to this most curious fellow in a way that recalls the interplay between Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) and Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) in “The Usual Suspects.” Joe presents things in a carefully delineated – and titled – chapter and verse format, informed and influenced by pinpoint asides and digressions introduced by Seligman. Joe is all about the dirty business of sex and sin, the individual pursuit of pleasure at all costs and the pain rooted in the futility of the effort. All this while Seligman dares to dream of comparisons to fly-fishing and dismisses the harsh sentencing that Joe levies on herself. Neither of them is religious, but each adheres to a certain social morality – the codes and culture of the people around them.
In effect, von Trier presents us with a philosophical presentation (the transfiguration of the nymphomaniac), a demanding court case with Joe’s past as prosecutorial exhibits seeking to prove undeniable guilt for the crime of being a “nymphomaniac.” In reality though, young Joe – and Martin indeed looks like a youthful, less world-weary version of Gainsbourg – succumbs to little more than dramatic provocation. She has her first orgasm as a pre-teen, loses her virginity at 15 and embarks on experimental journeys to separate the notion of love from sex, thus allowing for some purity in the act, while she seeks to be completely filled and fulfilled through it. The first installment of the film ends with Joe suffering a total and spontaneous loss of feeling in her vagina; setting up a second part where Joe – primarily the more adult Gainsbourg – attempts to regain the sensation she has lost.
Intriguingly, sexual penetration gives way to rough physical, emotional and psychological stimulation. We see Joe craving the debasement of a threesome (that never quite hooks up properly), her willingness to sacrifice her partner (Shia LaBeouf) and young son for brutal masochistic treatment and, finally, her suffering through self-help group-think processing before coming to the realization there is nothing wrong with embracing her nymphomania – as a vital and fundamental aspect of who she is.
The viewing format of “Nymphomaniac” creates a challenge of sorts to the viewer. Each part is approximately two hours long, although it makes little sense to only watch one section. So, discriminating cinephiles should prepare for a four-hour affair, which in the relative comfort of your own home is certainly manageable, but it does leave one wondering what the experience might have been like to partake of this raw and grand experiment in a theater with a communal audience. I can’t help but believe that was the demanding intention of von Trier, now somewhat unfulfilled.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.