Nymph()maniac: Vol. I
Nymph()maniac: Vol. II
starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf
written and directed by Lars von Trier
by Angelo Muredda Partway through the second volume of Lars von Trier's surprisingly nimble Nymph()maniac, wounded storyteller Joe (three-time Trier MVP Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells her rapt listener Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) about the time she went to a support group for her sex addiction. When the group's straight-edge policy proved more than she could bear, Joe bowed out, but not before quipping that her fellow sufferers are nothing but "society's morality police, whose duty is to erase my obscenity from the surface of the earth so that the bourgeoisie won't feel sick." At last, one thinks, von Trier has found his ideal authorial surrogate in Gainsbourg, whose weird Brechtian delivery is halfway between earnest declaration and stiff high-school rendition of The Crucible. Von Trier has been a professional troll, masking his underlying seriousness with outré gestures, since long before he started sporting T-shirts emblazoned with "PERSONA NON GRATA," in tribute to Cannes' goofy decision to brand him uncouth for joking that his Wagner fixation owed to a latent penchant for Nazism. (All joshing aside, it obviously stung him.) But he's never shown himself to be as sophisticated at joking through tears (or crying through nasty punchlines) as he is in Nymph()maniac. Clocking in at over four hours in two rich parts, at least in the edited version debuting this weekend at Toronto's Lightbox, it's a landmark of seriocomic storytelling that is simultaneously a satire of biographical tall-tales, a depressive's bildungsroman, and an alternately tender and lacerating self-portrait, defending all the Joes and Larses of the world for their obscenity without sparing them the lash.
Though much of the film's early press focused on von Trier's audacity in digitally superimposing porn actors' genitals onto the stars' bodies to maximize the verisimilitude of the sex scenes, Nymph()maniac is not an ironic essay on digital magic but rather a defiantly old-fashioned affair, grounded in well-trodden narrative traditions. On its most basic formal level, it's a Socratic dialogue between the mercurial Joe, who we meet lying bloodied and beaten in an alley, and the seemingly gentle Seligman, who takes her into his monastic apartment and invites her to tell the story of how she got there. And tell it she does, in the picaresque confessional vein of Moll Flanders, through a series of episodes that chart her youth with her naturalist father (Christian Slater, whose transatlantic accent has somehow depreciated from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), her early teen years as a budding sex addict (portrayed in flashback by Stacy Martin), her tumultuous on/off affair with her oily boss, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), and her later career as a torture artist in the employ of the mysterious L (Willem Dafoe). All the while, the bookish Seligman listens, drawing patterns between her saucy details and ordered systems like the Fibonacci sequence.
It isn't long before we wonder how much of Joe's story is tailored to its listener, what with its chapter headings--signalled by title cards and ornate graphics--culled from the objects she spies in Seligman's apartment, beginning with his trusty volume of Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, a seventeenth-century ode to fly-fishing that doubles as a theoretical guide to the art of catching men on a train. Two of von Trier's pet thematics are nicely encapsulated by that conceit. For one, we find a low-key reiteration of the narrative gamesmanship of The Five Obstructions in Joe's insistence on rising to the challenge of Seligman's demands for a good ruined-woman saga by riffing on her surroundings, with Joe at one point summoning the outline of a Walther PPK from the pattern left by a tea spill. More poignantly, von Trier returns to his trope of the falsely-modest rationalist man, represented here by Seligman, whose interjections into Joe's account often come paired with documentary footage, as if to attest to their earthbound realness. When she defended her director against charges of misogyny around the debut of von Trier's Antichrist, Gainsbourg took to saying that she thought she was playing a version of Lars, a depressed spirit besieged by the passive-aggressive interventions of mansplainers who insisted they knew best. Seligman is an even more insidious threat than Willem Dafoe's therapist was in that film, if only because he presents himself not as an expert but as a fusty, amateur literary sort who loves a good yarn, although he turns out to have more unreasonable demands: that Joe totally forgive herself for her callousness, for instance, and that she accept his moral reading of her story as a redemptive tale of one woman fighting back against sexual oppression.
Seligman's reading is not necessarily ungenerous, but it is, von Trier suggests, born of a certain bourgeois liberal niceness that bears little resemblance to the messiness of an actual life, especially one lived while coping with an exhausting, repetitive disorder Joe can't keep in check. It's pushy and expository where Nymph()maniac itself, more aligned with Joe, is digressive. It can't account for dark tangents like a fantastic set-piece late in the first volume, where the younger Joe, while randomly cycling through a dozen or so lovers, is confronted with one of their wives (Uma Thurman, wonderful), who brings the children upstairs to see daddy's new home, along with the "whoring bed." Nor does Seligman's interpretation make much sense of Joe's increasing desperation to fulfil her needs and all-encompassing depression when she can't, or Seligman's own prurient interest in the story, despite his insistence that he's just an unmoved observer.
As rich as Nymph()maniac is, its final swerve feels a bit cheap, a clumsy exclamation mark at the end of an evocative sentence that hardly needs one. Until that point, however, it's both von Trier's funniest film--"I think this was one of your weakest digressions," Joe deadpans after Seligman's umpteenth analogy--and his most affecting. Pressed to explain her unexpected kindness towards an unsavoury character late in the story, Joe admits to being unbearably moved by his loneliness and complete isolation. Her ensuing spiel about having a little sympathy for sexual outcasts is arguably as theatrically contrived as her earlier outburst in the addicts' circle. More than ever before, though, one hears a note of real pathos amidst the irony, maybe even a faint trace of humanism: Lars the self-hating troll looking into the mirror and granting himself a momentary reprieve.