Controversial and polarising are two words that can easily be used to describe Lars von Trier, the greatest anti-Hollywood voice in Hollywood. Films like ‘Antichrist’ and to a lesser extent ‘Melancholia’ and ‘Dogville’ have been divisive among critics and audiences alike, and he is definitely not one to shy away from controversy, having been declared persona non grata at Cannes Festival following some comments during a press conference there that were by no means politically correct.
Since his eccentricity can work both for and against him, it was hard to tell quite which way ‘Nymphomaniac’ would go on the scale of horribly misjudged and ultimately too self-indulgent to genuinely intelligent, and the answer is that he has managed to find a middle ground in between those two opposites, making a film that is by turns intelligent and self-indulgent, captivating and yet so insistent that it starts to become tedious.
Von Trier’s regular collaborators Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard return for this epic, and their roles and relationship is one of the most interesting parts of the film. Their sections work as exposition and setup for the rest of the film, but they are actually the most pertinent and well-acted of the entire drama, barring great turns from Jamie Bell and Uma Thurman in small roles. This is where Von Trier’s writing really shines, his blend of dark humour and sense of the sinister, mysterious and untrustworthy making some of the dialogue the edgiest and most interesting there is.
While a lot of the other aspects succeed in creating the atmosphere Von Trier desires and are portrayed quite deliberately as cold, there are points, particularly when we are examining the younger version of the character as played by débutante Stacy Martin, when we simply stop being engaged by proceedings and are merely observing it. Martin’s performance is barely believable and when she interacts with Shia LaBeouf’s Jerome it’s fair to say that the acting talent on show is pretty negligible. Quite what LaBeouf is doing with his accent throughout the film is beyond anyone, his so-called English accent being so terrible that the only conclusion has to be that he watched ‘Mary Poppins’ consecutively a week before filming, and then decided that Dick Van Dyke’s accent is quite possibly the best of all time. It’s this sort of thing that means some of ‘Nymphomaniac’ borders on the laughable, which ruins the general feel that Von Trier has so ably created.
Running at slightly longer than four hours, ‘Nymphomaniac’ is a consistent onslaught of distinct creepiness and unease, made downright terrifying at points by performances from the likes of Uma Thurman, whose one-scene turn is perhaps why that scene is the best in either volume. While Von Trier, as usual, is set on pushing the audience to the limit in his exploration of humanity and as he so often likes to point out, himself, we are left wondering quite why such an affecting experience while it’s on screen doesn’t manage to leave a very long lasting impact as you walk out of the cinema. The conclusion has to be that in his desire to be unrelenting, what has actually happened is that amidst the continuing scenes of sexual perversion, manic dysfunction and strife, it all feels far too cold for there to be anything to take away from it, and a little bit gimmicky. Sure, for some it’ll rank up there with the similarly unrelenting ‘Antichrist’ in terms of its controversial nature and will be lauded as another unique and wonderful work, it suffers from the same problems in this regard. To ensure that he doesn’t simply become a novelty, Von Trier must get round to sorting these issues, but it remains that over the two volumes ‘Nymphomaniac’ is interesting and original enough to stand on its own two feet. It isn’t without its many flaws, most of which derive from Von Trier’s methods and desires, and that’s what make the film more of a one-time experience than an enduring masterpiece, but it’s a one-time experience that is probably worth experiencing.