by Allan Fish
(Denmark 2013 241m) DVD1/2
Mea vulva, mea vulva, mea maxima vulva
p Louise Vesth d/w Lars Von Trier ph Manuel Alberto Claro ed Morten Hojbjerg, Molly Marlene Stensgard art Simone Grau
Charlotte Gainsbourg (older Joe), Stacy Martin (young Joe), Stellan Skarsgard (Seligman), Shia LaBeouf (Jerome), Christian Slater (Joe’s father), Connie Nielsen (Joe’s mother), Jamie Bell (K), Willem Dafoe (L), Sophie Kennedy Clark (B), Hugo Speer (Mr H), Uma Thurman (Mrs H), Felicity Gilbert (Liz), Jesper Christensen (Jerome’s uncle), Saskia Reeves (nurse), Kate Ashfield (therapist), Mia Goth (P), Michael Pas (old Jerome), Jean-Marc Barr (debtor), Udo Kier (waiter), Laura Christensen (babysitter),
Agent provocateur, enfant terrible, just plain naughty boy, call him what you like, any Lars Von Trier film is an event. In the case of Nymphomaniac it was anticipated more than perhaps any other. Those expecting something sexually arousing, however, may find themselves disappointed. After all, don’t forget that this is the concluding part of his trilogy about depression, and when I say that it’s more depressing than either Antichrist or Melancholia, you should take pause.
It follows Joe, the sex addict of the title, who is found in an alley by intellectual Seligman, who takes her back to his flat to recuperate when she refuses to have the police called. There he presses her about why she didn’t want the emergency services to come, and she tells him it’s a long story. He’s happy to listen, so she tells him the story of her life and why she is, in her own words, an awful human being. She goes back to her childhood with a kindly doctor father and an ice-cold mother, and takes in the loss of her virginity and her various friendships and lovers over the years.
It’s not quite as simple as that, however. Many other films are evoked in Von Trier’s treatise, but while references to Tarkovsky and Dreyer may not be surprising, The Usual Suspects is very much so. Yet Joe, like Verbal Kint, spins her tale by using the objects she can see around her; a portrait here, a seemingly shapeless stain on a wall there, many of the characters only given initials. It thus becomes a shaggy dog story, and like Seligman, one may find some of the coincidences pretty hard to overcome, but the names themselves are less important than the narrative structure. Essentially in eight chapters, it’s more like a cinematic symphony in eight movements, with healthy dollops of Shostakovich (referencing another erotic odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut), Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. Indeed, all the references dropped into the piece, even the Fibonacci sequence numbers, aren’t by accident. When Seligman talks of understanding sex despite never actually losing his virginity, he quotes reading ‘The Canterbury Tales’, ‘1,001 Nights’ and ‘The Decameron’, not just the sources behind the trilogy of another enfant terrible, Pier Paolo Pasolini, but each a collection of stories with a storyteller, a Joe.
If it’s not a perfect film, it remains a visceral masterpiece, while a longer five hour cut, soon to follow, may clarify a few loose ends. LaBeouf is miscast with an accent that wobbles between cockney and Bondi beach, while regular Dafoe is given too little to do. But Skarsgard is as good as he’s been in years, Slater is surprisingly moving as Joe’s father, Clark promising as Joe’s young equally promiscuous friend, model Goth ultimately frightening as Joe’s protégée and Bell unsettlingly repellent as a casual sadist with willing victims and a waiting room. Then there’s Thurman, only in one extended sequence, but so stunningly raw and broken as to verge on acting as self-harm. As for Joe herself, Martin is a discovery as the young version, while Gainsbourg, the brilliant constant in Von Trier’s trilogy, becomes like a feral beast. In essence, it’s not about sex, but about need, loneliness and facing an inner void. It opens over a long black fade-in, and exits the same way after a shocking final scene, recalling the end of I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (I am a Fugitive from a Gang Bang, anyone?) where Paul Muni retreats into the dark after responding to being asked how he lives with “I steal.” Imagine Joe had been so stopped at the close, only to turn casually and reply “I fuck.”