Lars Von Trier's latest is a Lars Von Trier film. A pragmatic introduction that is certain, but most of Nymphomaniac is. Vanquished are the beautiful digital slo-mo's of Melancholia's stills; the complex ruminations on genital mutilation in Anti-Christ also discarded. (I can hear the sighs of relief from here.) In its place is a simple story about a woman named Joe, effortlessly played by frequent collaborator Charlotte Gainsbourg, telling the story of her sexual odyssey from age two till now, a bruised and battered middle-aged woman found barely conscious in a rainy London alleyway.
"My only sin was I expected more from the sunset," the polite and softly spoken protagonist tells her rescuer in the form of the silent scholar Seligman, a man defined by his reading list. A subdued Stellan Skarsgard offers amusing asides to her tale of filth and woe; occasionally he berates her for miscellaneous blasphemy and accuses her of brutally manipulating the truth but here the truth isn't so much important: the story arc is. He's there to offer a final judgment on her passing: is she good or evil? It's a question that soon becomes impossible to answer and by the finale one wonders how it even existed.
A subject frequently broached in pornography daily, Nymphomaniac is perhaps the first film discussing with such a scholarly yet humane manner in the legitimate film arena. Sure, the sex scenes are incredibly graphic (many early viewers have accused it of being mainstream porn but such a point seems moot) but it's not on a grating basis as, say, the end of 2011's Shame. Then again, considering the film's title, I mean, come on. It's R for a reason.
But back to the pragmatism: mathematical sums appear on screen to highlight dramatic sequences; images of historical figures are intercut to show the plebs just who on earth the incredibly intelligent Seligman is talking about; stock footage of nature is frequently and messily woven into the storyline. It's all to add to Seligman's mutters about fishing and religion and it does help to pass the extremely long running time (an uncut version set to air at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival is rumoured to be five and a half hours) but ultimately feels at times unnecessary.
The storytelling takes place in Seligman's bedroom, a sparse empty space that looks more in context during war rationing. The story itself is screened to us via a series of wonderfully executed chapters much like a visual novel, shot beautifully by Manuel Alberto Claro who previously working with Von Trier as the director of photography for Melancholia.
With any film of an obvert and bleak sexual nature there's a risk that the sex scenes will overpower the rest of the film for the audience due to the graphic content presented. If one is willing to look past this there does an incredibly beautiful film that exists in the space in-between. Given the other thousand films already discussing female sexuality, there's a much smaller number doing it so openly. With very little actual titillation to speak of (one chapter in particular offers an Armageddon of sorts) the focus is taken off Joe's nudity and we're reading her memoir about a woman of her type trying to find where she belongs in this world. But as with every Von Trier film, it ends with more questions that it does answer.
Chaos does indeed still reign.
[rating=4] and a half
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire