“I’m afraid it will be long,” says our narrator, the titular nymphomaniac, of the story she settles in to tell. It’s one of many self-reflexive moments in an indeed lengthy saga of sexual discovery and debauchery in this, Lars Von Trier’s epic, absurd tale.
Our narrator knows it’s going to be long, and grants sometimes it gets out of hand; it’s a clever trick by von Trier.
“That is a completely unrealistic coincidence,” the listener interrupts at one point, echoing the thoughts of the viewer. And so it goes: a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) found bloodied and bruised in an alley is taken in by a caring and open-minded gentleman Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), and upon his queries, she begins to relay her life’s story.
It is one full of promiscuity, of sexual ferocity and emotional absence; of an insatiable desire for more and a deep reserve of self-loathing that is only now coming out. Told in chapters, and divided into two volumes only for the sake of the viewer’s comfort (Volumes 1 and 2 must be seen in order, and in full; it’s one narrative thought cut in the half simply because the film is four hours long), Nymphomaniac is a metaphoric, at times outrageous, and especially sexually graphic tale looking for approval.
If Joe is the voice of von Trier, than Seligman’s is what the director hopes the audience inhabits. He not only listens to Joe’s story, which includes asking an older man to take her virginity, watching her father slowly pass away, and juggling a roster of regular male attendants, but he engages her and goes so far as to explain how she isn’t a bad person.
Seligman tries hard to justify Joe’s actions, even if he is her narrative foil (a slight twist that is one of many contrivances).
A barren room in a quaint apartment is our main setting before and after each tale, told in chronological order, as Joe sits upright in bed and Seligman waits close by, hanging on every word. Joe tells her story, finding analogies in items around the room that simply seem to pop up at the narrator’s convenience: a lure here, a painting there. We never really see the place in full, but as each story begins, Joe finds something somewhere with which to compare her plight.
Sex is equated to the sport of fly-fishing, mathematical equations, playing the organ, and works of literature, meaning that you’re certain to have some triggers in the wake of watching.
All of this makes for tale that is far more amusing and exceptionally less emotionally-jarring than one might except from von Trier. His film here (though, a disclaimer reads this is an edited version and not the final version von Trier created), does not seek to torture the viewer, but instead bring him or her along for journeys provocative, comical, and once or twice, simply boring.
While the narrative thread is the most interesting aspect, there is a general connectivity with some of the stories, while others are more tangentially. Joe recounts a game her younger self (played by newcomer Stacy Martin) played with a friend in which the pair would board a train and see who could have sex with more men before they reached its destination. The reward was less some sort of esteem boost or bragging rights, but instead a bag of chocolate. This is also the ‘fishing’ story.
The figure of Jerome (a smarmy, silly Shia LeBeouf) is a slightly older man whose life is apparently intertwined with that of Joe and appears throughout. His presence, though aggravating at times, helps keep the storytelling somewhat coherent if not ridiculous.
Christian Slater holds serve as Joe’s father, a man who introduced Joe to the beauty and complexity of nature as a young girl. It’s Uma Thurman, however, who powers the most entertaining of the chapters. When one of the many men in Joe’s life decided to throw away his family to be with her, Thurman’s scorned wife and mother confronts them both (with her three young boys in tow), making for a hilarious whirlwind encounter where the lovers are almost as silent and speechless as the audience.
The four-hour epic (it feels more like three, which is sort of a compliment) starts to lose steam towards the end, as the memories replace the young Martin with the much older Gainsbourg (even though she is meant to be playing a woman in her mid twenties at one point), and the tales get a little bit darker and more sordid.
Von Trier is a cheeky, compulsive, somewhat clever storyteller, and has created what would seem like the best framework to make this story viable. The uncut version may not be out for another year or so, and you can’t help but wonder if this is in fact his full vision, and what really the point is in cutting another hour from such a lengthy film.
The explicit film is more memorable for its fits of comedy and dark tragedy than its sexual provocation, but its indulgence, predictably, and safe structure keep it from being as bold as it wants to be. However, who are we to judge?