There’s been a minor debate over the proper way to review Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. While it was released in Denmark in a full-length five hour cut last December, the film has been split into two volumes for its American release. However, the volumes are being released in theaters two weeks apart from each other. To add to the confusion, each volume was released on video-on-demand services in advance of its theatrical release.
Is it acceptable, then, to review each film individually? Or should the film be considered only as a whole, despite it being nearly impossible to see it that way at the cinema?
Nymphomaniac is so firmly episodic in structure that it might indeed be better to review each chapter individually. Although the ending of Vol. 1 is abrupt and arbitrary, there is something to be said for viewing these films as two separate entities. There are things that they each do differently, a contrast that becomes much more palatable when the film is broken in two.
Von Trier anticipates this split early on in Vol. 1 with a simple equation: 5+3=8. Here he refers to film’s eight chapters – five in Vol. 1 and three in Vol. 2, each with its own name and introductory title card. Even when viewed as a whole, von Trier tips the audience off to the fact that there will be a shift after the first five chapters. By the time Chapter 6 comes around, protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) begins naming the chapters herself, cheekily adding her own titles in order to brighten the film’s tone.
Initially, the chapters and the title cards establish the filmmaker’s control over these characters and this story. But once the main character begins naming the chapters herself, that control is turned on its head. It’s in Vol. 2 that Joe begins to call out her companion, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), on his constant digressions; meanwhile, those diversions were the foundation of their dynamic in Vol. 1. In the first volume of Nymphomaniac, Joe is played in her flashbacks by Stacy Martin. In Vol. 2, Gainsbourg herself takes over that role. Again, there is a clear transformation between the two halves of Nymphomaniac.
There’s also something to be said for not reviewing this film at all. Von Trier doesn’t hide the fact that Joe is his avatar, and that Seligman is an art critic. Joe’s story is deeply personal, but Seligman is an intellectual. In his digressions, he attempts to relate Joe’s story to real life activities that he understands like fly fishing. There’s a not-so-subtle implication that approaching an emotional work with an intellectual eye is something to be frowned upon.
The final scene makes this far more explicit. In fact, von Trier seems to be teasing people who want to dive deep into the minutiae of his work. For instance, the film tosses out a handful of references to the number eight, as well as five and three, but none of them are connected and they don’t seem to have any relevance to the film. It’s as if von Trier is laughing at people who take him seriously.
It’s an odd way to treat the audience. After all, the people who are going to seek this film out are the sort of people who like to look at films on a deeper level. But Nymphomaniac is a comedy at heart, and a lot of the humor seems directed toward von Trier rather than at the audience. Each chapter is unique stylistically and formally. He shoots the entirety of the fourth chapter in black and white, and in the third chapter he switches to the Academy ratio to emphasize the claustrophobia of the scene. It feels as though von Trier is deliberately making the film as fragmented as possible so that we, the audience, can’t get ahead of it.
That goes back to the idea of the filmmaker relinquishing control to his characters, as von Trier does when Joe starts diegetically naming the chapters. It’s also evident in Seligman’s digressions, which von Trier takes care to visualize onscreen. This forces our attention away from the story, not only because Joe is halted in her retelling, but because the viewer is taken out of the flashback. Nymphomaniac is an unruly beast of a movie in every conceivable way, and von Trier doesn’t even bother trying to reign himself in.
Does the chaos ultimately come to anything? The fascinating thing about Nymphomaniac is that it doesn’t reveal itself until the bitter end. I’ll admit that the final scene initially infuriated me. It seemed to be a betrayal of all the thought I had put into the film up to that point. And then I realized that if Lars von Trier saw my reaction, he’d burst into laughter. Nymphomaniac is a joke. I don’t mean that as a negative adjective. I mean that it is literally constructed as a joke; there’s four hours of setup and then a punchline.
There are some extremely funny scenes in Nymphomaniac despite its otherwise despondent tone. But the real humor is entirely for the enjoyment of von Trier. Everything that this film has to say is geared towards how von Trier expected the audience to react to it. Its argument about how people hypocritically judge female sexuality is based entirely on the fact that we are asked to judge Joe’s actions from the very beginning of the film.
Von Trier wants so badly to get a rise out of people, and he allows his audience to laugh alongside him at the outrageous results. His punchline is a cynical appraisal of human nature, but the film remains deliciously pleased with itself. As wild as Nymphomaniac is, it’s hard not to get onboard for the ride.
Movie Verdict: Win