Is it ironic or intentional that Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac didn’t get much of a rise out of me? I wouldn’t call myself a von Trier fan, but I very much liked Melancholia and The Five Obstructions, and I found many things to appreciate in Dogville, Antichrist and even Dancer in the Dark, even though there was also a lot about these films that irritated me. In online discussions about the Danish enfant terrible and his films, more often than not I’ve defended him: his provocations are smarter and less adolescent than they may look at first (though I’m sure the director is quite happy being an adolescent by choice at times), he’s not just screwing with his audience because it gets him all hot and bothered. He chafes, but the friction is there for a reason.
Even when I like them least, von Trier’s films are creative and original, they exhibita sense of play that I enjoy; even at his most grim, cynical or grating, he often finds ways of presenting his subject matter that are startling, fun and sometimes even funny. This is true for Nymphomaniac as well, getting a laugh out of me when I least expect it. At the same time, though, more often than not I was nonplussed by the director’s sexual epic: simply put, very little of the film (or two films – I saw it as Part I and Part II, though I don’t think Film Four cut any scenes) engaged me much. For the first hour or so I mainly was confused as to what von Trier was trying to do; beyond that first hour I mostly stopped caring, and in fact I found myself mildly bored. Is Nymphomaniac trying to say something about female sexuality? Our society’s policing thereof? Or is it less about sex and more about films and their depiction of sex? Perhaps it’s each of these at different times, but the overall effect was less that of an obscene mosaic or collage than that of a blur, albeit a blur comprised of penises and vaginas in all shapes and sizes.
Nevertheless, there’s definitely something striking to the in-your-face bluntness with which von Trier depicts sex. He doesn’t romanticise it, but neither does the film feel voyeuristic, or even pornographic. There’s little in Nymphomaniac that comes across as titillating. In fact, it’s rare that the sex in the film even comes across as particularly enjoyable to those engaged in it – which rather puts in doubt one of the big speeches in Part II, which has the titular character (played at this point by von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg) assert that she is not to be pathologised as a sex addict, she is a nymphomaniac, and therefore will not be regulated by a hypocritical, moralistic and misogynist society… at which point I definitely felt that the lady doth protest too much. The film doesn’t exclude societal hypocrisy concerning sexual mores, but neither does it spend much time dwelling on these, as the protagonist seems to be capable of unhappiness all by herself. If anything, she seems to be the one who judges herself most, without needing to be prompted much.
However, none of this rings particularly true conceptually or on a character level, at least not to me. In part, my problem is that I felt the film was addressing an audience other than myself. Perhaps someone more sex-positive, cheering on the life sexual and deploring the ways in which society judges female sexuality? Or someone more puritan, trying to shock and provoke them into thinking about their own feelings and attitudes about sex? Individual scenes could be interpreted as arguing for the one or the other, but for me at least those pieces of the puzzle failed to come together. It’s a shame, because in addition to the formal inventiveness and startling moments of humour the film is capable of, the actors work surprisingly well – surprising primarily because much of the dialogue tends to sound as if it was translated, and not too well, from Danish (or possibly Swahili). I would even go so far as to defend Shia LaBeouf’s performance, in spite of an often atrocious English accent.
In the end, though, while von Trier is doubtlessly capable of intriguing, irritating, original work, Nymphomaniac didn’t get any excited gasps and moans from me so much as a resounding “Huh?”, followed by a more resigned “… huh.” Which is quite an anticlimax, coming from one of the big agitators of European cinema. Perhaps I’m just not that into you, Lars.