Lars Von Trier once again blurs the line between film and endurance test in this two-parter – the most unpleasant pair since the Kray twins. It follows Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she tells her life of sex addiction to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård, Dr Selvig from Thor and The Avengers), an elderly intellectual who finds her beaten in the snow.
Much like the similarly unpleasant but in every stylistic sense totally different Kill Bill, this is a film which could, and in fact should, have been told over the length of a single film. The number of sexual encounters and incidents in Joe’s life could have been significantly reduced and it would have lost none of its impact, and it would have felt less like a long, slow slog.
She tells her story using chapter headings inspired by objects in Seligman’s room, and he uses his book smarts to do some amateur psychiatry. So when she tries to talk to him about her feelings he just wants to talk about fly fishing, a bit like an old married couple.
For Von Trier this is a spiritual successor to Antichrist and Melancholia, but it lacks the visual splendour of these films. There are some well-shot sequences, but he largely shuns impressive backdrops and picturesque composition in favour of sets that are dirty and grim.
Gainsbourg proves once again that she’s a fearless actor, prepared to do whatever Von Trier asks her – a scary proposition. She gives a strong performance, as do Skarsgård and other members of the impressive supporting cast, particularly Uma Thurman, who channels Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer. Shia LeBoeuf, on the other hand, gives a performance so poor it’s amazing that notorious perfectionist Von Trier kept it in. His accent goes around the world in 80 minutes, covering South African, Texan, cockney, and various shades of Eastern European. One second he’s Wikus Van de Merwe the next he’s Colonel Sanders.
I believe that if a film is aimed at adults there’s no reason to shy away from showing things as they are, and for a film about sex addiction it would have been odd for the camera to coyly look away whenever two characters bump uglies. Having said that, when there’s this much extreme and explicit content in a film it does tend to distract from whatever other messages it has. While it’s impossible to avoid a visceral response to it, the fact that the content is so extreme will probably mean that’s all you can remember when you look back at it. Von Trier manages to get some tense atmosphere in places, often thanks to well chosen music – but it also has the cold and detached feel that can make his films hard to connect to.
It’s a far cry from the romantic passion of pretty people on satin sheets that Hollywood has told us is sex. There’s nothing romantic about it at all, as Joe employs increasingly extreme means of fulfilling her sexual appetite. It is refreshing to see bodies which look normal, rather than the perfect plastic figures we’re used to on the big screen, but also odd to see the kid who played Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) engaging in hardcore S+M. For a film about sex with sex in every scene, it’s incredibly un-sexy.
For an idea of how explicit it is, compare it to Shame, from Steve McQueen, another director who is famously unafraid to put everything onscreen. Nymphomaniac makes his film about sex addiction look like The Lego Movie, and makes Michael Fassbender’s character look like a nun. It makes A Dangerous Method look safe. It makes Crash look like crèche. It makes The Last Tango in Paris look like Last of the Summer Wine. Although like that film a couple of its romantic scenes are unintentionally comical.
This film is what it is. It’s shocking and provocative and pushes the boundaries of what can be put on film. Whether that’s worth 4 hours and the possibility of being scarred for life is up to you.