Nymphomaniac (UK - DVD R2)
Marcus derobes and re-enters the world of Lars Von Trier as he tackles desire...
Lars Von Trier is back! And this time it’s with a two part, 4 hour long sex drama. Nymphomaniac has Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, telling her story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who finds Joe beaten up in an alley on a cold winter's evening. Taking her home to his flat, Seligman listens intently to Joe as she splits her story into chapters and explains every event of her life and how her condition has made her the woman she is.
Nymphomaniac is a long old watch told at a pretty laid back pace. The only real drive is the sexual exploits being stitched together with discussions about philosophy and psychology and comments about how sex and desire defines you as a person. Of course there’s counter arguments in among all this but despite the film's sexually oriented visuals the first volume of the two isn’t really a movie that exploits it’s content. In fact by the end of the first volume, with its many scenes of intercourse at varying levels of intensity, I felt I had learned more about fly fishing than nymphomania.
At the core of all this, we have the rather cold and emotionless Joe (who loves using the C word when talking about her genitalia) recounting and discussing her life with a much warmer Seligman as they battle to find common ground in their view of life, love and of course sex. Joe's flashbacks offer up a series of sexual encounters and it takes a good hour of Volume 1 before all of these tales start feeling connected to create a whole, rather than a series of largely unrelated events. Performances are a mix of amateur to middling throughout the cast but the two leads do more than enough to anchor the film and remind us what all of this is about.
There’s a fair few faces in here, though most of them don't even get to remove as much as their coats, which is the total opposite to what the orgasm face ad campaign implied, right? Uma Thurman gets a very odd but effective role as a scorned wife confronting her husband and his lover, Christian Slater gets to play the most straight up dramatic role in the film as Joe’s Dad, Jamie Bell gets to dish out some whipping and Willam Dafoe gets a small rather pointless role. Of course the big, almost shocking cast member here is Shia Labeouf.
Since the film's release, Shia's behavior at premieres and press conferences have sort of overshadowed the fact he’s in a four hour sex film from Lars Von Trier but he certainly is and hats of to him, as he doesn't shy away from the project’s full on approach at all. Like most of the first half of the film, all of Shia’s scenes are fairly tastefully handled, despite the fact he’s playing a not so savory guy. His performance is believable (well beside his English/Australian/South African and all that sits between that accent, and it's never all that convincing) and watching him on the extras, he’s a big fan of Trier’s work and he gave himself over to the director entirely.
Volume I actually ends up being quite tame by Lars standards really. Yes, there’s a lot of full frontal nudity and sex scenes that just wouldn't get into a mainstream film but nothing feels that extreme really. However Volume II opens with a 12 year old having a spontaneous orgasm (possibly a seizure), mixed with the spirits of classic nymphomaniacs from folklore as well as a bit of blasphemous Jesus detail. Yep. Volume II ups the ante a fair bit and its doesn't stop there.
With Joe’s flashbacks now largely her older self, we follow her through an inter-racial "sandwich”, (that is largely two African guys arguing with their erect penises swaying around), there’s a whole lot more violence as Joe visits a man who beats and hurts women as a business (played extremely level headedly by Jamie Bell), we then move into torture, a bit of paedophilia, (that in turn presents an argument for a why a percentage of them should get a medal) and even into murder (though after all that other stuff murder actually doesn't feel that weighty a thing).
Yes, the second half of Nymphomaniac delivers on all of the controversy that pushed this film into the spotlight last year. The only thing is, unlike Von Trier's last shockbait movie Anti-Christ, which also suffered backlash for its content, Nymphomaniac is hard to get involved in. Many had problems with Anti-Christ because it was essentially a horror film that was made like an arty indie drama. Nymphomaniac has the same low rent feel to it but it doesn't keep you at arm’s length for the same reasons as Anti-Christ, which made it through as it was extreme and forged on madness (Chaos Reigns!). Nymphomaniac is always watchable and often engaging but it doesn't feel like it works entirely because I came away not at all sure what I was meant to make of the whole thing and I was a viewer that went in wanting to like it.
There’s a bit of a message at the end that revolves around the idea that if this story was about a guy doing the same things as Joe we'd be less bothered (probably true) and another thing about even if you've had lots of (weird) sex it doesn't make you less sensitive about the act (again true) but those two things don't really do enough to comment on the rest of the film in my mind. Everything feels disconnected as a whole. There’s nothing saying desire or attraction or sex is positive or negative, nothing to condemn Joe with her actions or equally nothing to say she lived a life that was a valid alternative. There's discussion about the sexual acts but it always just ends in either silence or brushing over to the next Nypho-tale. Really this was my biggest problem with the film I otherwise liked. For all of its discussions of life and sex, it’s ultra extreme depictions of intercourse and violence, it’s questions around love and submitting to desire, it doesn't seem to commit to answering its own questions or even posing the questions to the audience. I mean you'd be hard pressed to say you even liked Joe and understanding her motivations at times was even more of a struggle.
The film just says things and throws visuals out there that in general you know the majority of the audience are just going to be shocked by without really delving into what’s being said or why its shocking (other than its outside of the normal view of a sex life). Lars seems happy to throw out extreme imagery, follow it up with a bit of dialogue between his leads to compare the story to a fable or a bible entry or a theory on life and then he just sits back on the fence and goes quiet before moving on to the next pondering. It seemed a shame as generally I liked the discussions put out there but neither side seemed intent on proving a point beyond stating everyone has desire and it comes in many forms, which just didn't seem enough considering the bravery and outright extreme nature of the film's events.
Now there’s a 5 hour cut out there somewhere that’s said to be coming out in the future. By what I've read, this is a much harder sexually explicit cut but I’m not sure that’s going to help the film any. I don't think Nymphomaniac needed more sex, it needed more structure and commitment to its subject and for a film that in large part if pretty far away from being ‘sexy’ in the conventional sense, having more Shia penis or adding another hour of sex into the film strikes me as if its just going to make it more about nothing but I guess we’ll have to wait and see on that one.
This is a DVD and it lacks any real show off elements. Sadly everything is noticably softer that it probably should be with a rather grubby appearance at times, especially in the darker interior scenes. The exterior daytime scenes hold up much better. Colours are noticably stronger and add a lot to the films visuals but its still far from glowing as you can tell by the photography is probably the intension, especially when theres talk of the beauty of a sunset and such.
Theres a fair bit of realistic detail in some of the close ups. Skin blemishes, pimples, wrinkles and stuble all look very good and given the right lighting provide some of the few show off moments on the disc. Unfortunately these highlights are fleeting as most of the time were met with black levels that are more like extremely dark blues, theres a distinct drabbness to most of the film and really theres a sense the film looks good outside of this standard definition format.
The two volumes look much the same but i found Volume II to have a lot more digital noise and a sometiems hazier appearance than volume two. it may be because there a lot of stark lighting and darker sets but it didn't seem as noticable in Volume I.
The film is largely dialogue based with very little else going on. All of the talking is clear and central and fills the quiet track as the main focus point of the film. That said, the odd music number fills the surround sound well. 'Born to be Wild' early in the film has a nice driving bit of bass to lift the mood and the classic music element in the second half of the film sounds rich and wide as it breaks the silence. The odd elements of score also sound strong and makes use of the rear speakers well but beyond the music, theres not much else to widen this quiet world of chats about sex and the human condition.
Disc 1 comes with some interviews. Charlotte Gainsbourg (12:11) talks sex on film and her history with the film, Shia Lebeouf (9:00) talks all things Lars and his experience on the film, lastly there's much the same input from Stacey Martin (10:18) and Stellan Skarsgard (11:22).
Disc 2 has a 'Live Q&A' with Stellan Skarsgard and Stacy Martin & Sophie Kennedy Clarke. (23:47). Edith Bowman pops the questions to the actors infront of a packed out screening but really it focuses on how Lars works more than anything else.
Despite sounding disappointed, I liked Nymphomaniac for what it was trying to do, even if I feel it didn't deliver on what it seemed to be setting up across 4 hours. To me, it was only the second half that I would deem controversial really. That said, this is not for the sexually shy or indeed the easily shocked or offended, as Von Trier once again knocks out a film that is going to split an audience in two depending on their sensibilities towards content on film.
The DVD itself is a mix between good and a bit murky, the audio is fine but there's little going on and while the extras are short there's a lot of interesting input.
Review by Marcus Doidge
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 28th April 2014
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Stereo 2.0 English
Extras: Interviews, Q&A
Easter Egg: No
Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia Labeouf Uma Thurman,
Length: 232 minutes