Smug Provocateur

Christina Newland of the 2014 Talent Press reviews the uncut version of NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 1, which is featured in the Berlinale Competition.

Lars von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 1

Lars von Trier's uncut NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 1 presents a plethora of questions about one's approach to film criticism, and the crossroads between moral and aesthetic judgment. With this in mind, here's a timely confession: it was my first walk-out. I'm no believer in undue moral outrage, as a rule; nor in hasty decisions. It may have been a gut reaction, but it was also a measured one. The question, of course, is why is NYMPHOMANIAC so troubling? Our introduction to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is in an alleyway that the camera pans around, free-floating in the darkness. An older man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers her, injured, and takes her back to his apartment, where Joe shares a long series of anecdotes about her sexual history and addiction. Stacy Martin, as the younger Joe, offers a delicately aloof performance, but is stifled by the director's vacillating perspective of her, creating a detachment that seems neither intentional nor warranted.

Von Trier's aesthetics reveal a polished formalism, but his technical virtuosity simply cannot raise the film out of its stultifying, posturing dankness. Joe and the others who populate her universe are, in their own ways, hermetically sealed in their misery. The film displays a narrow, perverse vision of the world, where each individual is shackled by sexuality and embalmed in dreary solipsism. Scenes peripheral to the plot feature a gynecological view of an abortion procedure, or a nurse sopping up feces. We are shown in great detail the worst of human behavior and bodily functions, and given no intellectual grasp on why we are being made privy to such ugliness.

This, to me, gets to the heart of the matter. At a certain point in the proceedings, there is reasonable hope that a contextual rationale will emerge. But it comes to nothing. There seems to be no organic, genuinely felt emotion or thought contained therein; and therefore no anchor for almost three hours of a smarmy, knowingly nauseating experience. Instead we get tenuous, overwrought analogies, or cod-philosophical dialogue. NYMPHOMANIAC is a suffocating attempt to put the audience through an ordeal, and then to justify it with philosophical platitudes. It smacks of smug, shallow provocation that had me searching for the door.