The missed rendezvous: such a potent storytelling device, such a tantalizing chance to imagine what might have been if only Character A had been on time or Character B had waited another five minutes. Romeo and Juliet has a whopper along these lines, and the device works even when not depicted—like between the action of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, for instance. One of my favorites is in Jules and Jim, in which a missed assignation is a brief plot beat, a mysterious “what-if” in the course of the great aching journey of François Truffaut’s classic. I wonder whether director (A Single Girl) might have been thinking of that moment in Jules and Jim with his latest film, 3 Hearts. Here a missed connection is central to the passionate tale we’re watching; its ripples keep expanding through the rest of the movie.
Seeing Nymphomaniac Vol. II a couple of weeks after Vol. I is more than just a case of cinema interruptus. It proves how much the opus needs to be seen as a single picture, preferably in one go. So intriguing in its first couple of hours, Nymphomaniac scrambles to get back into gear as Vol. II resumes the story; more nagging still is the feeling that while the material darkens, it doesn’t necessarily deepen.
We return to the room where Joe, a no-longer-young sex addict—though she prefers the term nymphomaniac—is recounting her life story to the intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård).
Lars von Trier’s biggest trick has been convincing the world he is not serious. The Danish filmmaker adopts such a puckish public demeanor, and is given to such willful outrageousness (whimsically comparing himself to Hitler at a Cannes press conference was a particular lulu), that he has turned himself into a brand-name oddball just this side of David Lynch. Superficially, his movies create the same kind of taboo-breaking impression: radical looks at sexuality, politics, and violence (Breaking the Waves and Antichrist among them), culminating in a remarkable portrait of depression and the end of the world (Melancholia). By titling his new project Nymphomaniac, and letting it be known that this four-hour, two-part picture includes marquee names and unsimulated sex, von Trier is acting up again. There goes that old devil Lars, fanning the flames as always.
And then Nymphomaniac: Vol. I begins. Within a few minutes, there is little doubt about the filmmaker’s seriousness. Not that the film is without a playful side; droll Danish humor is abundant. But this is a real journey, recounted to us by a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is discovered, beaten up, in an alley.
I’m not sure how I manage to keep my simultaneous fascination with /repulsion for Lars von Trier in balance, but it’s back with a vengeance in Antichrist (Criterion), another provocation that is at once beautiful and perverse, personal and cynical, and filled with his sour vision of the emotional small-mindedness (small-heartedness?) of the human animal. This one, a portrait of marriage as a morass of anger, suspicion and power after she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls into a pit of suicidal depression and he (Willem Dafoe), a psychiatrist, takes personal charge of her treatment in a rural escape called Eden that von Trier twists into a diseased hell: paradise rotted.
It all turns on the death of their infant child, which crawls through an open window and falls to its death while the parents are occupied in a slow-motion ballet of aggressive, feral sex. Anthony Dod Mantle is back behind the camera delivering Von Trier’s now familiar art-house look of carefully composed and stunningly sculpted establishing shots and framing sequences (like the B&W prelude of sex and death in the whisper of falling snow) while handheld photography takes us through the cover art frame and into their psychodrama.