Kathleen Murphy: Plunging into the first volume of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, we’re drowned in cloacal darkness, straining to identify initially faint metallic sounds that rise in volume, odd plinks and whines and scrapes. When von Trier finally lets there be light, it’s dim, dirty looking, oppressive. Narrow passages cut through a maze of worn brick walls and rain-smeared pavement. Impossible to imagine that any sky overarches this dank “underground,” or that there’s any way out of these claustrophobic environs.
Von Trier then snapshots the “instruments” — an industrial fan, its turning retarded by rust; a loop of metal banging brick; a garbage can lid percussed by raindrops — in what we come to recognize is a symphonic overture, composed of the strange “musical” notes we could hardly hear in that original dark. Suddenly, heavy metal chords and grinding vocals erupt, the bellow of some cosmic machine. When the camera frames a closeup of a bloodied hand, outflung on wet pavement, the color comes as a shock. We hadn’t considered that flesh might exist in this dead world.
What a visual/aural downer, you may say — but undeniably exhilarating as well, in its masterly movement and design. Nymphomaniac begins in a post-apocalyptic cul-de-sac, as though its world has already ended. (Didn’t that happen in Melancholia?) But this is the embarkation point of a movie ostensibly about the sexual odyssey of a child-then-woman committed to nonstop, indiscriminate fornication. What does von Trier’s meticulously composed overture signal about Nymphomaniac’s itinerary and destination? Where can we go from here?
Richard T. Jameson: An admirable keynote, on your part as well as von Trier’s. You don’t mention that that opening “shot” of total blackness must last a couple of minutes (I resisted reaching for my iPhone to check). How typically perverse yet surprising of von Trier to start off by denying us anything to look at, at the outset of a movie where we expect to be voyeurs.
The first thing we see is a view of snow falling straight down — a shock cut to beauty and, after all that cacophony, utter silence. The view looks (we assume) out of the alley where that bloody hand with body attached lies. It’s of a courtyard or a street, empty of people. Then there’s one person, a man (Stellan Skarsgard), on his way somewhere with a dainty little shopping pouch. And when he comes back, he appears to pass the alley without seeing the body. But something stops him just out of frame, and he comes back, and he looks, and after a minute he enters.
In the meantime von Trier has allowed the alley entrance to accrete architectural and textural complexity, become almost organic looking, acquire several layers of walls and angles lighted by the kind of ineffable glow that might seep out of a snowflake. Is it the most complex and beautiful setting we’ll see in this two-hour movie?
KM: Only an aesthete cursed by chronic despair could create beauty and complexity out of that stoneworks. But Nymphomaniac is the third entry in von Trier’s Depression Trilogy.
Pretty soon, the battered owner of that bloody hand (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is, Sheherazade-like, storytelling us and her sympathetic rescuer-cum-confessor Seligman (Skarsgard) out of the drear of those alleys and his drab apartment. Recounting colorful (in action and palette) and often very funny stories of her “shameful, sinful” life, Joe insists she’s a “bad human being.” Sipping restorative tea, Joe begins: “I discovered my cunt when I was two.” It’s not exactly “Call me Ishmael” or “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies,” but Joe’s opening line recalls innumerable fictions about youngsters “lighting out” for adventure, finding, sometimes losing, themselves on the road — Candide, Tom Jones, Huckleberry Finn, Stephen Dedalus, et al.
RTJ: We can’t continue this palaver without noting that, in addition to von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist, Melancholia), Joe is played by several actresses at ages 2, 7 and 10. At age 15 Stacy Martin takes over, and she’s the main show whenever Gainsbourg and Skarsgard aren’t on screen. French-English, she was 22 at the time of filming, and this is her film debut. Von Trier insists he didn’t notice she bears a strong resemblance to Gainsbourg’s mother Jane Birkin at a comparable stage in life.
Gainsbourg’s fellow travelers include Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Uma Thurman, Saskia Reeves, Bond villain Jesper Christensen, Subspecies‘ slobbering bloodsucker Anders Hove … and in Vol. 2 we are promised (wait for it!) Udo Kier.
KM: Stellan Skarsgard’s Seligman, Joe’s enthusiastic audience, seems a gentle soul, clearly late-middle-aged but strangely childlike in countenance, his faded features unmarked by experience. Joe may prefer an Old Testament reading of her sexual escapades, but Seligman’s some kind of secular humanist, consistently excusing, contextualizing, intellectualizing, and aestheticizing her sexual exploits. He frequently interrupts her flashbacks with learned allusions, empathetic observations. Is there something a little off about this Good Samaritan? (I admit I flashed back to Pandora’s Box and Jack the Ripper!)
RTJ: Cut him some slack, his son’s a thousand-year-old vampire stuck in Louisiana … but I digress.
One of the things that fascinate me about Nymphomaniac is that we can’t guess what we’re going to be looking at next. I don’t mean the varieties of sexual experience. I mean … well, the most startling and exhilarating scene in the film involves a character whose entry into the mix about two-thirds of the way in could not have been anticipated, and who proceeds to own the movie for what in olden days would have been a reel. An amazing performance, both the character’s and the actor’s, whom I will not name for the same reason I won’t say what the sequence is about: we don’t do spoilers here (unless I spoiled that cut to the snowfall — my bad).
Point is, there’s this dynamic tension in Von Trier, between near-minimal production resources and radical lurches into deeper, richer, more multivalenced, envelope-pushing reality than would have been possible in a conventional film, one with more sets and more breathing room in the cutting.
KM: Dynamic tension charges almost every aspect of the movie. As Joe begins Chapter One: The Compleat Angler, she claims that her tale is a “moral” one. Though this is a girl who (presumably) just wants to have fun — that is, unlimited sex — her experiences are relentlessly mechanical, boring, sometimes just plain funny. For a sexually explicit movie, full of screwing and sucking and galleries of male members, Nymphomaniac (so far) never seems prurient or particularly erotic (Skarsgard remarked to an interviewer that it would make a lousy “wanking” movie); the contes never come off as morality plays. Joe might as well be a sexual anthropologist testing a host of subjects, or an angler testing the efficacy of many different flies.
Will we eventually learn that Nymphomaniac turns on the tension between storyteller and audience, the play between Joe and her enigmatic father confessor? Flashbacks — of both her and his childhoods — are embellished with playful animations, live-action, split screens, and a passel of screen superimpositions, invoking Peter Greenaway’s stylized “reinventions” of cinema. Von Trier accounts for Joe’s premeditated, ultra-mechanical defloration through superimposed addition: “3 [vaginal humps] + 5 [anal humps],” which in turn prompts the learned Seligman to note that these are Fibonacci numbers. In this bent take on “My Night at Maud’s,” consider the tension between posited morality and the banal couplings we actually witness, not to mention the whimsy and outright hilarity of some of Joe’s adventures. Then there’s the tale-spinner’s deadpan, know-nothing seriousness, so frequently countered by Seligman’s delighted digressions into metaphors of fishing, mathematics, science, mythology, religion. Joe’s readings of reality are largely narrow, unimaginative, while Seligman sees sex as a trampoline from which one may leap into humankind’s headiest creative endeavors.
RTJ: Yes, I was surprised by that — that the title character, as embodied by Gainsbourg in the present-tense parts of the movie, isn’t the saucy minx one might have anticipated beforehand. Of course, we don’t yet know what brought her to her abject state of mind and body at the film’s beginning. But you’re right, of the two, Seligman is the antic spirit bringing the film to unexpected life. Will he somehow succeed in doing the same for Joe?
KM: Or will he somehow be the death of her?
Just can’t resist fishing in one of Seligman’s/von Trier’s down-the-rabbit-hole streams of consciousness: During that Compleat Angler chapter, Seligman compares a “nymph” fly to Joe, who “runs the river” as she nets a train full of men; we’re even treated to live-action fishing scenes along with superimposed shagging scorecards. Keep running this river and you’ll surely free-associate from Izaak Walton (author of The Compleat Angler) to Isaac Newton, then remember that the fall of an apple famously helped Newton to “discover” gravity; Joe’s chapter is about a falling Eve, banging her way through a train for a bag of sweets. For further brain teasing, pursue the significance of Fibonacci numbers, the ash tree Joe’s dad loves so much, and medieval polyphony, a resonant metaphor for promiscuity and Nymphomaniac itself.
Whatever I expected of Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1, I didn’t anticipate its wonderful sense of play, the persistent pleasure derived from following this picaresque pilgrimage. More predictably — this is, after all, von Trier territory — there’s horror, and the film’s penultimate chapter, Delirium, provides that in spades. In this episode, Joe loses her mostly affectless reaction to love and pain and sex; and images of screwing to exorcise death and the awful decay of flesh deliver a gut-punch of meaning — perhaps the climax of the countless mostly passionless couplings that came before. I think it’s wildly off the mark to pretend that Nymphomaniac is about a woman’s sexual liberation, any more than that awful architectural dead-end at the beginning of the movie offers a room with a view. Rifling through a grabbag of genres, Nymphomaniac explores everything — genital lubrication and the Golden Ratio, the power of storytelling and ugly reality, Yggdrasil and Bach’s “Little Organ Book”— but we won’t know definitively where we have been or where we are going until Joe’s pilgrimage concludes in Nymphomaniac, Vol. 2 (due for April release).
RTJ: Assuming we know it even then. The wonderful and maddening thing about von Trier is that you never quite know what his game is. People harp on his misogyny, for instance, and yet how many — how few — filmmakers have imagined such transfiguring journeys for female protagonists to be on: Emily Watson’s character in Breaking the Waves, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, Nicole Kidman in Dogville, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Are his stylish embellishments, such as what you’ve called the Greenaway superimpositions here, just child’s play or means of hinting at a whole other dimension to what we’re watching? I still remember my astonishment, sustained throughout the film, at his feature debut The Element of Crime — this blasted black-and-white world served up in curry-sauce monochrome, with an obviously English detective making his way through an obviously not-English city trying to solve a series of crimes — a climate of crime, really — which as I recall never did reach any identifiable conclusion. And yet the calm arrogance of the film’s creator inspired a kind of faith.