At a 2011 Cannes International Film Festival press conference, organisers had to evict Melancholia director Lars von Trier after he admitted to sympathising with Hitler. It was not long after this scandal that von Trier began to tease the media with details of his next project.
Given the prankster persona that von Trier has cultivated over the years, many were unsure of how to greet the news that he intended to embark on a film titled Nymphomaniac, which would chart the epic sexual history of a single female character.
Fast-forward to 2014, and it’s now evident that von Trier was nothing less than sincere about his ambitious project. Nymphomaniac premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year as a five-and-a-half hour uncut version. For its theatrical release, the film has been edited down to a somewhat less daunting pair of volumes, each two hours long.
The film opens as self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg; her younger self is portrayed by Stacy Martin) is found—beaten and abandoned in an alleyway—by a genial older man named Seligman (Stellen Staarsgard). After taking her back to his home, Seligman patiently listens to Joe as she outlines, over eight chapters, her many erotic adventures. While these adventures involve a parade of male conquests, one of the few recurring male figures in Joe’s life story is Jerome (Shia Le Bouf), with whom she has her first sexual encounter as a teenager.
The present day dialogue between Joe and Seligman acts as a bridging device between the film’s chapters, which range in tone from the brutal to the humorous. Common to all chapters, however, is a refusal to concede an inch in the unflinching depiction of Joe’s carnal escapades. This isn’t the first time that von Trier has shown unsimulated sex on screen, but the director takes things one step further in Nymphomaniac. Computer-generated imagery places films of the stars from the waist up onto films of body doubles, who were shot actually carrying out the act itself.
In spite of its sprawling nature, Nymphomaniac proves to be an engaging experience for its full four hours. Providing a much-needed counterpoint to the often gruelling nature of Joe’s stories are the humorous punctuations offered by Seligman’s pseudo-intellectual ramblings. And despite the explicit nature of the film, the breadth of thematic and narrative territory covered makes it clear that von Trier is aiming for something beyond mere provocation.
But exactly what that something might be is left wide open for endless speculation. Moreover, many would be forgiven for wanting to avoid an over-earnest academic analysis of the film—a phenomenon that Von Trier clearly mocks in the form of Staarsgard’s bookish interlocutor.
Nymphomaniac will undoubtedly go down as one of 2014’s most fiercely debated and critiqued cinema releases. This fact alone is justification enough to take a chance on von Trier’s latest incendiary contribution to the cultural conversation.