WARNING: AS WOULD BE OBVIOUS WITH A FILM CALLED NYMPHOMANIAC MADE BY SUCH AN ASSHOLE AS LARS VON TRIER, IT IS HARD TO FIND IMAGES THAT ARE NOT-NSFW. AS SUCH, THERE WILL BE AT LEAST ONE IMAGE HERE THAT IS NSFW AND IF YOU CAN’T DEAL WITH THAT, I SUGGEST YOU NOT READ ON.
BEHOLD THE FRIGHTENING FIRST IMAGE OF NSFW INTERNETS!!!!
Let me tell you about Daniel Gildenlow. He is one of my favorite vocalists, the frontman for the Swedish progressive metal band Pain of Salvation (which I find poorly named… it sounds too moralistic for their work). Like myself, he comes from the school of Mike Patton – taking into account a huge stress in avant-garde stylings, range-hoarding and overall versatility in both style and genre. Which is weird when he works on a more focused project as Pain of Salvation. He is also, by most personal accounts, an immensely cheery guy – surprising given the entirety of the band’s works are entirely dark-themed sobering and generally Debbie Downer concept albums.
One such album is the 2002 work Remedy Lane. In it, Gildenlow gives a semi-autobiographical about his phase of promiscuity in Budapest and it is not a sympathetic tale so much as it is humanly crushing. It takes an overall exotic and erotic phrasings with its guitar work while the drumming lightly accents the dissonance, but a very sinister undertone pervades over the music – making appropriate the tales of miscarriage, suicide and chilling sexual ambition to a very off-putting degree.
And really, it’s sex. It’s hard to not make it erotic if you suck, like maybe Harmony Korine. But it’s also immensely personal and the themes it applies to the sex factor are not themes to take lightly. They insight fear, regret, sadness and disappointment.
“Fandango” paints a picture within its rhythms and description of the “dance” that it feels like a drunken nightmare. It’s so abrupt and trippy. “Beyond the Pale”, my favorite Pain of Salvation in particular, is the biggest explosion of the emotions I’ve mentioned… Gildenlow gives off his full range – screaming, wailing, rapping and even singing lullabies within the songs as he deals with the choices he’s had to make.
It’s not an overall amazing album, it has its loose ends of tracks (I wouldn’t say you need to hear “”Undertow” or “This Heart of Mine”, but it’s still an album I hold dearly in my heart and a constant play for me.
The reason I mention it is that its self-damning attitude to sexuality had been reminded to me when I came to the main subject of this review. Hence, I use it as a segue to the third and final work in Lars von Trier’s trilogy of Depression. And lo and behold, much like the final installment in film series based on Young Adult novel series, this film has very unnervingly separated itself into two parts.
It’s not as bothersome, though, since, in all honesty, Nymphomaniac is incredibly novel as a story, sort of a modern Arabian Nights with our Scheherazade bring instead the self-consuming eye of Danish problem child of cinema von Trier through the surrogate of a woman who is in pain and knows little more than one thing: to fuck.
The film opens in usual von Trier style: With an intro including shots that seem to deliberately arrange their composition and color in the form of a modern day painting, slow moving shots in poetic fashion as we witness Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying on the floor in piss, blood and snow. This time around though, we don’t get the classic operatic music alongside this prologue and its displayed leitmotifs. It’s score instead by the unorthodox choice of Neue Deutsche Harte forerunners Rammstein and their song “Fuhre Mich” (the soundtrack alone is a curious thing, mixing the works of Talking Heads and Wagner, Steppenwold and Beethoven absolutely frivolously. I can’t make up my opinion on its attitude.), deliberately for its continuous repetition of the word “Nymphomaniac”. At this point, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) a man residing in the area passes by her on the way to get some alcohol and decides to take care of her. As she rests up, Joe recounts her life up until this point, insisting it will paint her as an awful person, while Seligman listens intently and commentates.
She’s basically taking the long way and trying to condemn herself for her sexuality much like Gildenlow tried to do so in Remedy Lane. The result is that the heavy-handed nature of both tales becomes somewhat exhausting halfway through the works. But what is more problematic is when the story is interrupted consistently by self-analysis and dissection, which is very much the case with Nymphomaniac. Seligman consistently interjects into the story, either to re-assuage Joe from her self-damning attitude or applying his intellectual considerations to the story. Seligman’s commentary is reminiscent of copies of novels with continuous annotations and notes that get in the way of the actual text. And it’s obviously deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, but it doesn’t feel half as profound when its embedded into the film itself and it doesn’t take long before Seligman becomes an annoyance. Which is why it is such a relief when, at the opening of Volume II, Joe calls Seligman out on his shit.
It’s also the point where the story takes up a very heightened feel, as the true source of Joe’s story is revealed, and we enter less from a “slice of life from Hell” eye on the Joe’s sexual appetites and more on the very unbelievable lifestyle descent she’s goes into – from a full-on family to mob ties – and perhaps to reflect upon that completely fabricated feel, the cinematography steadies itself more to the same standard as the prologue. It goes from pseudo-Dogme handheld verite feel (in obvious Lars von Trier-ian fashion, the sex scenes were shot superimposing the actors’ faces seemlessly on the bodies of porn stars… Lars has some address book I’m guessing) – the source of the film’s dungy dirty feel for its repulsiveness almost as much as Gainsbourg’s specific attitude as she recites her life – to totally balanced tone and the camera arranged on a tripod. It’s also the point where the movie completely lost me… the only saving grace is the building romantic arc between Joe and her deviant protégée P (Mia Goth) and how it is played out by its actors, even in its melodrama.
By the way, the cast is impeccable for the most part – in particular, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater and Jamie Bell all appear for only short periods in Joe’s life as respectively the wife of one of Joe’s trysts, Joe’s enlightened and doomed father and a fucking frightening sadist whose mad cruelty is hypnotizing. If I had to pick my favorite performance of those three I’d hard pressed, as they’re all worlds different than the characters I am used to them portraying and yet they’re convincing enough to make me believe they had to have dug into deeper darker caverns of who they are as people. They take command every time they are in the scene. Stacy Martin as well, who portrays Joe for the initial half of her life, is totally alluring, her presence a modern day Lulu. She’s not going to bring anything but harm to herself while, well, who could blame her? If I had to state who was the star for Volume I, it was her rather than Gainsbourg. Shia LaBeouf is a complete miscast and capable actors like Jesper Christensen, Udo Kier and Willem Dafoe don’t get much shit to do, but it’s carried enough by Martin and company that we can barely care for it.
So the film is composed capably, but attempts to come out raw in itself. It tries to feel like a porn film you really shouldn’t be watching with its self-critique, completely un-erotic, yes, but not half as condemning. Its source of rawness is not its script or its acting, its in the faults that von Trier didn’t mean to be there. It’s in us going “ugh, what the fuck is Shia LaBeouf doing there?” and in us going “what the fuck is Talking Heads?” playing for. It’s a sense of amateur work that we know von Trier to be above, but he went with it anyway. It’s probably tricky to find out whether or not he meant for it these things to just come off as half-assed, but I wouldn’t be surprised by either answer.
And it works. It’s not sexy, but it’s sex. It’s not a terrible story, but it’s off-putting storytelling. It meshes in the raw way we realized von Trier wanted. But much like Remedy Lane, we know there’s something to find out about our human impulses, how far is too far and it’s pretty shocking and eye-opening. Or maybe it’s because I come from an Islamic Conservative family that shapes my perspective, but brings my mind back to the idea of sin.
Such concludes the Depression trilogy, Lars von Trier’s complete symphony of the demons of humanity that eat at human beings… focusing on loss, impending doom and sex. Not an unorthodox selection of subjects to apply depression to for the most part, but hit or near-miss, he made them seem fresh. He gave a new lens. It’s why he’s among my favorite filmmakers. He’s not afraid to get dirty. Nor to make it nasty.