Director Lars Von Trier’s much-anticipated Nymphomaniac I and II suffer from a slight identity crisis. It poses questions like what is the difference between art-house and porn? What is the route of female sexuality? How can art feed into life? But the film never reaches climax and we never get any of these answers. Instead Von Trier’s film mirrors the flippant workings of the human mind in an attempt to rile our curiosity.
The lusty female lead, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), encapsulates the plight of the inquisitive sexual deviant, who tries to find and then assert her identity. She is collapsed in an alleyway when Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) takes her back to his flat. Through episodic flashbacks she pieces together what makes her libido tick. She organises her sexual development into eight chapters, which unevenly split across the two volumes of the film in a five:three formation, a nod to her momentous although anticlimactic departure from virginity.
For Joe the big resolution comes two-thirds through the second volume with her bold assertion “I am a nymphomaniac”. Not a sex addict, not an anonymous sexual deviant, but a nymphomaniac, demonstrating a keen awareness of her female identity. Seligman confirms that this it is a film about gender when he questions whether her story would be so shocking if it were by a man. Films like Steve McQueen’s Shame go someway to answer that.
With little sexual experience of his own, Seligman tries to offer a literary context to her story. The deliberate consequence is to turn Joe’s life into a piece of art. The overlaid religious omens he creates are interesting tangents. They reel off his mind with encyclopaedic accuracy. The sometimes grotesque and often beautiful images from nature, which interupt the more raunchy images from Joe’s story, are memorable. With all his bookish knowledge though, it is often the case that he has far more to learn from Joe than she does from him.
Together they are an odd pair, one of body, the other of soul. Von Trier does not pander to realism with their friendship, but makes them clear artistic constructs. There is a moral to be explored after all. They set brash cues for each other, with a consciously artistic wink to the meta-theatre that is being created. Sometimes these lessons are crudely put, and the second volume’s persistent attention on Joe’s childish scenes of masturbation, are a Freudian indulgence. The scenes with young Joe and her father in volume I, however, are some of the most touching in the film, like when he explains his passion for trees.
The film resists a single location with a cast of mismatched accents. Most irritating was Shia LaBeouf who plays Jerome, Joe’s first love and constant infatuation, whose mongrel British accent is highly distracting. Whilst his interview process caused a stir, it sticks out more than his sub par performance. He is the weak link of the film and imposes the most demanding question of Joe, why him?
The film feeds off curiosity, but a sense of closure is never reached. We end how Joe started off, floundering on our stomachs, trying to work out what just happened.