For a film like this, in many versions, I should acknowledge that I saw the film at Dendy Newtown cinema, split into Vols 1 and 2, abridged and censored – total runtime: 4hr 1min
Despite the amount of attention this film seems to be getting from the media at large and festival circuit (along with the inevitable overhype that comes with it) I don’t particularly feel passionate about von Trier’s latest; it’s merely ok. The first volume is more playful and structurally risky (bringing with it mixed results and a gentle waning of my patience). The second volume is more engaging and better told, albeit hampered by increasingly prescriptive and frustrating duologue interjections from Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård.
Shia LaBeouf and Christian Slater need accent coaches badly, both were awful in their important roles, especially LaBeouf, whose accent was so jarring it hampered characterisation and, by extension, the entire arc of his character the film somewhat rested upon. Uma Thurman and Jamie Bell anchored what were the best sequences in the film, the former a great piece of black comedy, the latter a confronting scene akin to Seidl’s Paradise trilogy (but not as well shot). Gainsbourg is reasonably solid but the time jump in character between her and Stacy Martin, who is the real star of the film, is poor.
Lars von Trier might be his own worst enemy in this movie, filling the film with certain crystallised concepts (painful rants about society housed in character development) and completely vague notions about sexuality and Joe as a person, who I don’t even know if I care about by the film’s end (as the second half drifts off down oddly genre-heavy narrative we feel less attached to sexual obsession in first volume). Despite liking the pilot episode of The Kingdom and loving The Five Obstructions, I’m starting to get the feeling that von Trier just isn’t for me (terrible realisation when I have about five of his other films on dvd, ready to watch).
Where Melancholia left me cold and hollow, Nymphomaniac seems to be trying to give me too much, throwing concept after concept into the narrative without dealing with many of them to their conclusions. For a film that runs over four hours, it’s odd to think that there’s a lot seemingly left untold. The film also seems content throwing undeveloped emotional backstory in the climax of the film (soul trees as emotional catharsis?) that they mar any genuine overview of the film’s narrative movements. You can’t really look back at Nymphomaniac and feel like you’ve witnessed an expansive “life story”, just a slightly above average exercize in indulgence with a good soundtrack (best use of “Burning Down the House” I’ve seen thus far).
How von Trier uses imagery is of some interest, as when narrative failed him, often his cinematography saved sequences. As aforementioned, the Jamie Bell sadomasochism sequence is filled with superb tension and the perspective of the camera, on Joe’s face and fully immersed in reaction (with occasional shock cutaways), forces the audience to count the whip’s blows and to nearly feel the pain, albeit sans the ecstatic sexual joy she takes from it. In addition to contained sequences, like this and the handheld intimate chaos of the Uma Thurman short, von Trier often seems like a film student proving his mettle by throwing in a whole heap of different stylistic techniques and asides, including diagrams superimposed on parking cars and a nearly great sequence where visual cues mirror that of a musical chord being created. His usage of black and white in the “Delirium” chapter of the film was really disappointing. He managed to create these arresting exterior shots, in particular the opening shot of the sequence, yet these visually dull scenes inside the hospital, which seemed hampered by poorly designed lighting.
Moving back to the narrative, another controversial element of the film is its ending, which I found to be fairly problematic, near audience-insulting but more disappointing than anything else. I was sitting on the fence for most of the film but Volume 2 was getting quite good, as it moved into these odd genre short stories it seemed to ignore a lot of narrative buildup from Volume 1 (at least in terms of subtext)and some of the pacing was making up for the annoying explanations of plot mechanics by our duelling narrators. Then the film stumbled to its end, with the forced emotional payoff of the soul trees flashback and then the storytelling being finished, leaving our two characters in the present time, momentumless. The ending then seems an attempt at a jolt to life of the narrative and its aims, a sick joke to keep us on our feet. Instead of coming across as that, it just felt lazy and abrupt, essentially rendering an element of the plot structure null-and-void (by extension perhaps making the entire experience of the film pointless). As such, the movie’s a bit of a mess. Interesting, but not as rewarding as I’d hoped. It gets a halfhearted recommendation because, let’s face it, there’s not much else out there like it.
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