Review first published (in slightly shorter version) by Film4.
Synopsis: Controversial Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier rounds off his ‘Trilogy of Depression’ with a tale (in two parts) of sexual liberation, oppression and exploitation.
“Fill all my holes, please.”
It is perhaps not as catchy as the line “Chaos reigns” from Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), the first film of the so-called ‘Trilogy of Depression’ (which Nymphomaniac closes) – but nonetheless it is a line repeated several times by the heroine Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, and in chronologically earlier scenes, Stacy Martin) who, found beaten and unconscious in a wintry alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), spends the night at his place recounting the long, long history of her sexual rise and fall and her encounters with men of all types (culminating with Seligman himself).
From its canny teaser campaign onwards, Nymphomaniac has been one long come-on, seducing viewers with the promise of no-holds-barred hardcore Euro porn smuggled in under the knickers of arthouse respectability – yet, in a classic von Trier manoeuvre, the film, like Joe’s story, ends in frustration, denial, betrayal and painful confrontation, so that any straightforwardly sexual response to the great Dane’s epic tease is ultimately shot down. Von Trier, you see, has bigger fish to fry, and through the interplay of mannish Joe and ‘unmanly’ Seligman (both, in their different ways, figures for von Trier himself), the film, like Antichrist, allegorises the imbalanced relationships between the sexes, while also baiting viewers with the libertine expression of some very politically incorrect ideas – a jaw-dropping use of the ‘n’ word here, a casual broadside against Zionism there, and even a defence of (repressed) paedophilia. All classic, snook-cocking von Trier.
While perhaps impenetrable is not quite the right word to describe Joe (in one scene she compares her vagina, in all its accommodating openness, to an automatic supermarket door), nonetheless her storied life comes with holes of its own, needing to be filled by any or all of her critics. Seligman expressly pokes at the unbelievable coincidences and jarring chronological lacunae in Joe’s sorry tale, while Joe herself does not conceal the fact that she is, like the unreliable narrator in The Usual Suspects (1995), drawing the structure, perhaps even the content, of her story’s eight chapters from the objects and artworks that furnish Seligman’s apartment. Yet if Joe’s story may, either in part or even in full, be a fiction, its very telling, in ludic dialogue with Seligman, reprises the give and take, the slap and tickle, that constitute its key elements and its essential truth about male-female relations. For as Joe chronicles a lifelong quest not so much for sexual satisfaction – which she gets, at least for a while, many times a day – but for understanding from a male other, the bookish, apparently asexual Seligman supplements this narrative of passion and punishment with his own recherché digressions on angling, mathematical sequences, Poe, morality, musical harmony, religious iconography and mountaineering.
The resulting asymmetries engender something altogether more expansive and resonant than your average skinflick, with a woman at the centre who comes – and then stops coming – with an unusual amount of her own agency, and is very much the mistress of her own narrative, even if she is never quite able to reckon with the cruel inescapability of human nature and the biological drive. Yes there is sex, although a lot less (and less arousing) than might be imagined, and yes there are also, even more unexpectedly, lots of laughs – but at heart this (w)hole story casts its erotic line at debate-inducing controversy, and will, from its chilly beginning to its shocking end, catch viewers hook, line and sinker.
Verdict: So much more than just a ribald tale of sex, von Trier’s erotic epic opens itself wide to all manner of penetrating interpretations.