Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II, Picturehouse Event

NANCY NAPPER CANTER spent five hours last Saturday watching Lars Von Trier’s newest cinematic output at the Picturehouse – and lived to tell the tale.

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Nothing gets Cambridge more excited than the prospect of an arthouse porn film. Supervisors, Directors of Studies, James Mitchell Jr. – all were there, all eagerly awaiting a One Night Stand with Lars Von Trier’s Nymph()maniac. Five hours, two volumes, eight chapters and lots of gasps, coughs and – surprisingly – laughs later, we emerged from Cambridge’s Arts Picturehouse. Nymphomaniac didn’t disappoint. But for me, it didn’t completely satisfy either.

When friendly bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers a bruised and bloody stranger (Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in the street, he offers to call the police. But she insists that he doesn’t, instead simply requesting a cup of tea. Once in Seligman’s home, Joe tells us the story of her life. Which is to say, the story of her sexuality. ‘It’ll be long and moral’, Joe warns. She’s right: the next two hundred and forty minutes tackle guilt, birth, death, paedophilia, anti-Semitism, racism, religion and, of course, sex addiction. What Joe doesn’t suggest is that this bleak sexual odyssey is also Von Trier’s most comic film to date. I’ve never heard so many arts students hoot with laughter.

The character of Seligman provides much of the humour. Muse-cum-fairy godmother-cum-encyclopedia-cum-simpleton-cum-sage, Seligman reacts with a perverse combination of childish silliness and keen intellectuality to Joe’s sordid stories of sexual excess. To draw a comparison worthy of the man himself, Seligman is like Chaucer’s narrator in The House of Fame: he has experienced life (and, importantly, sex) through books alone. To Joe’s initial puzzlement, Seligman interrupts her flashbacks with cheerfully detailed analogies about fly-fishing, Achilles and Fibonacci sequences. Through Seligman, Von Trier seems to be both amusing and teasing his audience. From a film entitled Nymphomaniac, we didn’t expect to learn about the feeding habits of warblers.

So, onto the nymphomania. There is, of course, a lot of sex in this film: both the young Joe (newcomer Stacy Martin) and the older seduce hundreds of men. However, there’s not a lot of erotica. Courtesy of some clever work with porn doubles, the sex is as realistic as any you’ll see on film. But it’s neither as sexy nor, importantly, as shocking as the publicity suggests. Particularly in the first volume, Joe is determinedly indiscriminate: she copulates regardless of mood, regardless – largely – of man. The depressing triviality of sex (as Joe sees it) is communicated memorably in a montage of male groins of various colours and sizes, which flick slowly across the scene like carpet samples. Things get more visceral when Joe resorts to BDSM, which result in some of the film’s most upsetting moments. Yet overall, the sex scenes less prominent, radical and disturbing than the trailer would have us believe. This film is encyclopedic; sex is only one of its elements.

Renowned for his victimized female central characters, Von Trier is frequently – and unfairly – accused of misogyny. So it’s perhaps in anticipation of this that Nymphomania adamantly declares itself to be feminist. Forced to attend a support group for sex addicts, Joe announces defiantly that she, a ‘nymphomaniac’, is nothing like the others. ‘I love my cunt,’ she declares, ‘and I love my filthy, dirty lust’. As Seligman somberly, superfluously spells out later, Joe’s story is a powerful statement about attitudes towards female desire, an excoriating examination of a hypocritical society which is quick to punish and slow to empathise. With this, though, Von Trier isn’t only defending female desire. He’s also defending himself.

Von Trier’s genius lies in his intensity: not one moment in this film is dull, predictable or unmemorable. The acting is superb, the music boldly affecting, the cinematography, though sparing with its beauty, provides some welcome aesthetic pleasure in the midst of this grim fairytale. But I was, at times, frustrated by a certain coldness. Melancholia left me feeling simultaneously crushed and euphoric, but the central characters in Nymphomaniac possessed a curious lack of moral growth which seemed both a barrier to empathy and worthy of more exploration.

When Seligman questions Joe on how she felt about the pain her promiscuity caused to others, she shrugs: ‘You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs’. ‘Oh,’ Seligman replies, after a thoughtful pause, ‘that’s true.’ Nymphomaniac is a huge, sprawling, powerful monster of an omelette that nobody but Lars Von Trier could have made.

This was a one-night-only double-bill of the film(s). Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II are out on general release later this month.