The first half of Lars von Trier’s probable masterpiece, Nymphomaniac, arrives on eddies of a “playful” publicity campaign that threatened to flatten the licentiousness (and even the straight-up sexiness) of the subject matter into a string of dopey gags. A series of posters featuring ASCII-rendered genitalia and photos capturing its international cast mid-coitus, were mischievous in a way consistent with von Trier’s own smirking, ludic impishness—the pranksterish postures that ignite even his worst and most boring work.
At the risk of whittling one of the most thorny, interesting, and exasperating of living filmmakers down to a single problem, the central concern (for me, at least) with von Trier and his films is that this playfulness rather easily teeters into boring didacticism. His button-pushing provocations—both in terms of his films’ frequently controversial material (rape, depression, mental retardation, racism, more rape) and the ideas (or discernible whiffs of ideas) that drive them—become needling and banal.
It’s like we’re constantly asked to take for granted that von Trier is playing his own devil’s advocate, putting across visions of nihilistic reckoning, sneering at the feeble human soul’s instinctual gravitation toward corruptibility and self-pollution, while simultaneously being asked to believe that he somehow believes the opposite. He angers and riles us and ignites the passion and intellect, while not really meaning any of it, off in the corner with that shit-eating grin on his face offered up as some mawkish mea culpa. He’s like Gabbo on The Simpsons, bashfully offering little else in his own defense beyond, basically, “I’m a bad widdle boy.” It’s infuriating. And much more so because it’s meant to be exactly that.
And yet von Trier’s pretenses of self-interrogation and cross-examination avail themselves as especially useful when considering his work. There exists in some quarters a dubious belief that an artist must mean their art—that it must be some necessarily mediated expression of their sensibility, their soul, instead of a vantage on their interests or a formulation of their ideas and intellectual/creative/emotional hang-ups at any given moment. Should it matter if von Trier holds the human spirit in such pitiable regard? Should we care that he seems genuinely like a prick and the kind of guy that it’d be a total drag to hang out with? Why is it inherently more valuable for cinema, or for any art, to be more greatly esteemed when it’s functioning as a paean to humanity’s spiritual nobility, the verity of which is itself highly dubious? It may be more of a downer for von Trier (or Altman, or the Coens, or whichever other mongers of feel-bad filmmaking) to figure humanity as muddied and wretched and fundamentally incapable of grace. But it’s not somehow wrong. Not everyone believes in some aesthetic-intellectual program of human ennoblement. Not everyone needs to be fucking Bresson.
So, then, Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 is a film that opens in consuming blackness and, I’m sure, will end there when the curtain falls on Volume II. It’s nasty, it’s cynical, it’s nihilistic, and it may strike some as reprehensible (which is not a moralizing comment on its abounding nudity and graphic depictions of sexual intercourse of sundry configurations). But, to nip a line from The Big Lebowski, at least it’s an ethos. It’s also von Trier’s best film (or best half of a film) since Europa, more than 20 years ago.
In its opening minutes, Nymphomaniac signals the brutality in store, with the rain pinging off tin roofs cut short by Rammstein’s “Führe Mich,” a rupture of tranquility and forecast of bad-things-in-store that recalls Michael Haneke’s use of a raucous John Zorn in the early scenes of his Funny Games. Joe (Charlotte Gainsboroug) is bloodied and beaten in an alley, and taken in by the kindly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Kindly and almost unbearably intellectual and autodidactic, Seligman listens as Joe lays out the narrative of her sexual awakening, budding promiscuity, and compulsion, the two often digressing into literary, musical, and fly-fishing references that provides Joe’s story a contour, unfolding (as in much von Trier’s recent work) in discrete chapters marked by their own title cards and sets of aesthetic choices.
It’s not long before that niggling didactic quality that so often mars von Trier’s work crops up. “I’m just a bad human being,” says Joe, to which Seligman responds, “I’ve never met a bad human being.” And so commences the entwined intellectual pas de deux that develops, and will continue to develop, across the film. It’s like the conversation between Nicole Kidman’s ludicrously named Grace and her father near the end of Dogville. Or the similarly constructed debates between Gainsboroug’s Claire and Kirsten Dunst’s Justine in Melancholia. Or the gendered philosophical back and forth between Willem Dafoe’s strawmanishly named He and Gainsboroug’s Her in Antichrist.
The structuring difference here is that von Trier is using this system of argumentative back and forth, of the debate between Joe’s idea that someone can even be a bad person and Seligman’s belief the contrary (his “Can a fetus somehow be sinful?” versus her retort of “Why not?”) not as mere detour, but as an organizing mechanism. Angling, Poe, Bach’s polyphonies, the Fibonacci sequence—all these bits of trivia and snatches of stories give an arbitrary shape to Joe’s account, which she actively shapes to respond to Segilman’s expressed interests and gentle prodding. It’s like in those David Markson books where something like a recognizable story kind of emerges from an ether of raw data and anecdote, like a sailboat snapping into relief inside one of those Magic Eye puzzles.
The arrangements of each chapter are laid out with such patent obviousness that they become more than arbitrary scaffolding for Joe’s bildungsroman. Instead, they create a sense that Nymphomaniac is as much a story about sexual compunction and control as it is a story about storytelling itself. It’s an illustration of that Postmodernism 101 idea that there are no grand narratives and that all stories, and so all lives, are the product not of narratives beats and rhythms or medical diagnostics, but of the contradictions and contingencies of lived experience, which only acquire their recognizable shape in hindsight, or indeed in the very process of telling and retelling them. It’s a film about how we understand things, and how we make sense of ourselves.
As Joe leads Seligman along from her preadolescent discovery of sexual pleasure, to her unceremonious virginity loss to on-again, off-again partner Jerome (Shia LaBeouf, affecting a convincing English accent), to her inculcation into an anti-love feminist order, to the loss of her beloved father (Christian Slater, affecting a less convincing English accent), the two quarrel over the nature of human decency, the shamefulness and empowerment of sexuality, and so on. In a nut, Nymphomaniac seems to examine the extent to which Joe’s weathered cynicism and self-loathing (the “dark bias” which Segilman says clouds all her tales) determine her experiences and to what extent her experiences are produced by them. The film seems to be actually thinking through these ideas, and not merely staging an argumentative to and fro. In this way, Nymphomaniac feels like it is producing its ideas, instead of merely regurgitating them. In this way it feels truly alive, even in all its misery.
At the same time, von Trier’s own dark bias is never far from the film’s movements. From that Rammstein cue onward, there’s little doubt that Joe’s gloomy contempt for herself, and for humanity writ large, will triumph over Segilman’s perky dilettantism. (The story does belong to Joe after all, as it’s called Nymphomaniac and not Kindly Old Intellectual Who Sits Attentively in a Chair.) The reminders are everywhere, from a weirdly overwrought segment in which a spurned wife (Uma Thurman) drags her three sons to a young Joe’s (Stacy Martin) apartment to confront her cheating husband, to the more persuasively affecting, and borderline unwatchable, scenes of Joe watching her father thrust violently into delirium and death, the black-and-white cinematography bearing the shades of her own consuming melancholy.
Von Trier, and that smirking Trierean nihilism, remains in full view everywhere. Even, and maybe especially, when he pretends otherwise, like in the now famous interplay between his quaky handheld filming style and those more stately compositions, a style that essentially embodies the director’s dialectic of control. Despite Segilman’s best efforts to prod Joe along with his buoyant commentary on her own self-hatred (he calls her anecdote of she and a friend competing to seduce as many train passengers as possible into the on-board lavatory “a very pleasurable and humorous story,” as if he were an audience for a Penthouse Forum live reading), it becomes increasingly difficult to retain comparable positivity.
Even in its first volume, Nymphomaniac seems bent on convincing us of Joe’s unlikeability, persuading us toward that belief that she’s a bad person, that there even are bad people. It’s nasty, foul, cynical, stomach-churning, shocking, nihilistic, bummer stuff, to be sure. But it never pretends to be anything else. For the first time in a long time, von Trier isn’t hiding behind anything—perhaps finally too exasperated with the fallout of his own public impishness to bother putting on airs. In his withering contempt, maybe even in his evil, he’s once again honest. So let us all cheer the arrival of Nymphomaniac: Volume 2 with the caustic delight of Melancholia’s Justine, readily embracing the catastrophe that will finally snuff us all out for good, smirking toward Armageddon.
Berlinale runs from February 6—16.