Von Trier’s Nymph()maniac: a study in being human

(Delirium - Christian Slater. Photo by Zentropa/Courtesy of Mongrel Media)

(Photo by Zentropa/Courtesy of Mongrel Media)

In the weeks leading up to the opening of Nymphomaniac in theatres, both traditional and social media were abuzz with discussions of the kinky nature of Lars von Trier’s newest film. Theories on the use of body doubles and interviews about the lead actors’ private parts made headlines. Perhaps it was all a part of von Trier’s clever ruse: to set the audience’s expectations on to explicit nature of the film in order to deliver a heavy emotional impact.

Nymphomaniac is a life story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as told by the protagonist to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), an amiable bibliophile. Seligman finds injured Joe laying in an alleyway, and gives her shelter; in exchange, Joe tells him the story of her downfall.

Joe’s recollections begin in her early childhood, and from the start deliberately offer the most negative light on heroine’s self-proclaimed nymphomaniac tendencies. In a monotone, matter-of-fact manner, Joe gives detailed accounts of her sexual escapades. Instead of responding to the provocative nature of Joe’s stories, Seligman draws parallels between Joe’s narrative in mathematics, Bach’s compositions, stories from the Bible, and fly fishing.

(Photo by Christian Geisnaes/Courtesy of Mongrel Media)

(Photo by Christian Geisnaes/Courtesy of Mongrel Media)

The themes explored in Nymphomaniac are similar to other films in von Trier’s Depression trilogy, Antichrist and Melancholia; despite its racy title, the film is a tale of love and loneliness, and a never-ending search for intimacy. The beginning of Joe’s sexual journey is devoid of feeling; as a result, she struggles with using physical intimacy to complement an emotional one in her closest relationships.

While Nymphomaniac does not fail to deliver its fair share of explicit scenes, both the detached nature of Joe’s narrative and the grotesque, purely mechanical nature of sexual acts become as much of a routine for the viewer as they do for Joe. Sexual partners become interchangeable, blend into one single faceless being – at one point, the film demonstrates this by literally flashing dozens of images of male genitals on the screen. The only character who stands out of the mass is Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who upsets the self-indulgent balance of Joe’s nymphomanic habits.

Von Trier effectively uses the dialogue between the protagonist and Seligman’s foil character to create a portrait of a flawed – and by virtue of that, very believable – human being. The unusual length of the film, which consists of two volumes run just under four and a half hours, works in its favor. Each of the eight chapters reveals a different aspect of Joe’s personal history, and draws the audience deeper into the tragic results of her “rebellion against love.”

If the title or the epic length of von Trier’s film aren’t enough of an impetus to go see it, then a voyeuristic desire to sneak a peek into someone else’s most intimate confessions can be a good reason to check out the final instalment in the Depression trilogy.. While Nymphomaniac was full of nude bodies, the most shameless exposure was Joe’s innermost feelings.

Nymphomaniac, Vol. I & II is playing at Vancity Theatre from March 21 to April 3.