Our relationship with sex is…complicated. Some demonize the slightest whiff of promiscuity. Others advocate giving into every impulse you feel, without fear of shame. For the most part, people seem to participate without making a huge deal of it publicly, though that doesn’t mean filmmakers can’t wring some drama out of the notion. For years, Hollywood’s idea of revolution has been beating the “losing your virginity is the most important thing ever” drum in countless raunchy farces, so if we’re to expect any cinematic progress as far as the dirty deed is concerned, it’ll come from someone like Lars von Trier. Having already sicced works of unrelenting brutality like Antichrist and Dogville upon the world, the Danish director is by all means the perfect choice to create Nymphomaniac, a story spanning four hours and two separate movies that details the life of a sex addict. However, where von Trier’s previous pictures have shared a grim view of the world whilst serving up some intellectual for viewers to gnaw on, he appears to have churned out this latest feature for the sake of being provocative. But Nymphomaniac isn’t infuriating because it asks tough questions of its audience; it pisses you off because it doesn’t ask anything, possessing no agenda beyond showing those in attendance the ugliness its characters wallow in and leaving out the part where we’re supposed to care.
It was a cold and snowy night. En route home from the store, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) comes upon Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman lying beaten and bloody in an alley. The good Samaritan takes her back to his home to recover from her injuries, whereupon she professes to be a nymphomaniac. Joe proceeds to regale her rescuer with stories from her life as a sex addict, from exploring her body during childhood to being a curious teenager (played by Stacy Martin) cruising for men on train rides with her friends. For her, love was never in the cards; she only had desires to be fulfilled and a string of willing partners at the ready to help out. But normalcy eventually caught up with Joe after becoming involved with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), a repugnant young man who nevertheless caught her fancy. However, Joe’s restless ways quickly compelled her to expand her search for satisfaction, resulting in a chain of events including a violent dominant (Jamie Bell), a gangster of sorts (Willem Dafoe), and one fateful encounter that left her half-dead on the streets.
That Nymphomaniac‘s ultimate point seems to simply be that suffering exists no matter where you turn makes the journey to it an intensely uninteresting one. “Forget about love,” declares the picture’s tagline, a statement that’s right at home with von Trier’s all-around defeatist view of humanity. Don’t be fooled by Seligman’s efforts to reassure Joe and use logic to explain away her nature; hope is in short supply here, with the lion’s share of the running time taken up by an almost constant succession of dour and unsavory figures. In all honesty, though, there’s still a fascinating premise at play, one that doesn’t shy away from the grim reality a woman who’s pushing an already taboo subject to the extreme would probably end up facing. But rather than build towards some statement about society’s hypocrisy or posit how those who want sex without romance being part of the picture have every right to happiness, Nymphomaniac doesn’t stand for a whole lot at all, save for showing what bastards its characters are — Joe included. As we bear witness to the psychological and physical abuse she suffers at the hands of those who don’t understand her particular set of needs, we see Joe acting skeevy in her own ways from the outset, sexually assaulting unwilling participants and being unrepentant over the relationships she’s helped destroy. It’d be one thing if she didn’t know any better, that she was still trying to get a handle on why she felt the way she did and couldn’t comprehend the lives she was effecting in the process, but she’s well aware and doesn’t care, with this lack of empathy being just about all the insight into her thought process that you can hope to receive.
Nymphomaniac is the kind of film that makes you wonder why anyone in it would ever speak to anyone else. There’s nothing especially warm about Seligman that would inspire the emotionally-jaded Joe to open up, nor do we buy that Seligman is invested in Joe’s story enough to spend hours upon hours listening intently and making cultural connections to every incident she describes. In fact, their conversations are probably the most irksome aspect of the film, a series of overly verbose exchanges that’s several country miles outside the realm of human behavior. Nearly all the dialogue falls into the same unnatural groove, as if the entire cast is trying to act smart by replacing what they’d say in everyday speech with the fanciest-sounding equivalent from the thesaurus. Von Trier also displays a tendency to pack his story with obvious symbolism, then have the characters explain it outright to one another (and, consequently, to us); apparently, so little is his faith in man’s ability to fathom any concept, it even extends to the viewing audience. But the real victims here are the actors, the majority of whom put forth the most raw and brave performances of their careers, only for their work to be almost completely undone by the material. The best they can hope for are a couple brief scenarios in which they truly shine, as with Christian Slater’s touching turn as Joe’s father and Uma Thurman as the deservedly enraged wife of one of Joe’s lovers. But try as Gainsbourg and Martin might, the film offers scant few opportunities to leap inside Joe’s mind and see for ourselves why she’s thinking the way she is, let alone ever truly feel sorry for her.
If von Trier intended only to push buttons with Nymphomaniac, then bully for him. It’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last joke he plays on the moviegoing world, toying with the emotions and expectations of his viewers before pulling the rug out from under them and having a big old laugh. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is laughing at us rather than with us, and while he’s within his rights to do so, I have just as much freedom to deem this hollow excursion into human misery four hours of fruitless faffing about.