Judge Gordon Sullivan abstains...courteously.
Forget about love.
It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when Lars Von Trier went from being the eccentric Danish heir of Carl Theodor Dryer to the enfant terrible and agent provocateur of the international art film circuit. It might have been with the weird sex of Breaking the Waves, the use of mentally-handicapped actors in The Idiots, or the melancholy musical that is Dancer in the Dark. But by the time Antichrist rolled around, with its strangeness, violence, and frank sexuality, Lars Von Trier seemed to be baiting an audience of viewers who showed up at his films seemingly to be baited, to be outraged.
I was not at all surprised he chose to give up public speaking, after he was excoriated in the press after a comment about sympathizing with Hitler. Then it was announced his next feature would include explicit scenes of sex, with famous actors providing the faces and stand-ins for the genitals. Much like his previous work, the resultant Nymphomaniac offers all the outrageous titillation we've come to expect. But like his best work, it offers a deliciously tilted take on a generally taboo topic. Though not for the faint of heart, these two films (which are really one long film) provide a surprisingly satisfying experience.
Facts of the Case
Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard, Insomnia) rescues Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia) from a beating. He takes her home and the two begin to converse. Joe, a self-confessed nymphomaniac, recounts her sexual misadventures to the attentive Seligman, and those sexual misadventures that play out before us.
For most people, going to the movies is about experiencing a story. We want to watch a protagonist we can identify with doing something interesting for roughly 90-120 minutes. There's nothing wrong with that experience—it's the basis of much of Western drama for the past several centuries. But that's not the only thing cinema can offer. In the case of contemporary "auterist" cinema, viewers often go to see a film that acts as an opportunity for the director to show us a view of the world we would otherwise miss. Lars Von Trier in particular shows us the world through his own strange lens. He's not necessarily interested in traditional stories or even traditional characters. Instead, he offers experiences and emotions as filtered through his sensibility. For some, the loss of a child would prompt a drama about the dissolution of a marriage in the wake of tragedy—Lars Von Trier uses the same situation to stage the dissolution of a marriage as an animalistic decent into violence and allegory.
With Nymphomaniac, Von Trier gives us his particularly warped view of sex and sexuality. Of course this isn't his first time in the territory. Many, if not all, of his films feature some kind of sexual undercurrent. But it doesn't leave the subject of sex for more than a few minutes. Given my knowledge of Von Trier's other films, I expected that I knew what Nymphomaniac would show me. I was wrong. Von Trier has conjured a world where sex is beautiful, mysterious, violent, boring, and often completely un-arousing. So did Cronenberg's Crash, but where that film largely compared sex to technology, Nymphomaniac is much more far-reaching in its comparisons. Sex, for Von Trier and his characters, is natural. For most people that means that it's something we all do and the thought ends there. Von Trier has something else in mind. For him sex is like the naturalness of fly fishing or the Fibonacci sequence, themselves complicated, mysterious parts of the world.
Which is all to say that with Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier gives us a long film that immerses the audience in his particular view of sex, and therefore (at least in his mind) life. It's a journey I'm glad I went on, even if it's not one I plan to take frequently in the future.
Magnolia's Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (Blu-ray) supports the mission of creating a different take on the world. Each of the volumes gets its own disc. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded HD transfers are excellent. The project is entirely digital, so we get crisp detail throughout. Colors are generally a bit muted, but black levels are deep and consistent. The film changes its appearance to better reflect Joe's narrative, from razor-sharp contemporary footage to shots mimicking 16mm film. Considering the diversity of the material and the length of the two parts, this transfer looks great. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is similarly excellent. The film uses music frequently—from classical to contemporary—but no traditional score. The cues have wonderful clarity and dynamic range, never intruding on the dialogue. The sounds of sex are as sharp as anyone could want.
Between the two discs we get a trio of featurettes on the director, the cast, and the sex. They are pretty basic, running 8 or 9 minutes apiece, but do a fine job conveying some of the complexities behind the film. There's also an AXS TV featurette that's basically a promo with some interviews. The trailers for each film are included on their respective discs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lars Von Trier is like some classical music—loud, bombastic, and off-putting in its density. Some people feel rewarded for the time and energy they invest learning how to appreciate the themes and vocabulary of classical music. Others, not so much. It's the same with Lars Von Trier. To many viewers Nymphomaniac will be a slightly sordid and largely boring trip through director's obsessions. Of course, if nudity and sex aren't your thing (including explicit shots of both), this is not your film.
Some will be disappointed we're seeing only the theatrical version of Nymphomaniac. Lars Von Trier's preferred cut is one long cinematic experience, adding another 90 minutes of material. I'm not sure I could sit through the whole thing any time soon. However, if you're waiting for the ultimate experience, hopefully the folks at Criterion will give it the extras this release doesn't offer.
Nymphomaniac is a provocative piece of art cinema. To some, that means it's like a child throwing a tantrum to get attention, while others will see a significant meditation on the place sex holds in our lives. Those who enjoyed previous Von Trier films are the most likely audience for this film. Luckily this two-disc Blu-ray gives the film an excellent presentation and some interesting extras.
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Scales of Justice, Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Perp Profile, Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Distinguishing Marks, Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Scales of Justice, Nymphomaniac: Volume II
Perp Profile, Nymphomaniac: Volume II
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Distinguishing Marks, Nymphomaniac: Volume II
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