Maestro picks up the megaphone with missionary zeal

The marketing campaign has made this release impossible to ignore, and anticipation for a Lars von Trier film has never been higher. However, if it weren’t already obvious, the marketing has little to do with the product.

It’s rare that a filmmaker gives critics such a lot of meat to chew through at any time of the year, let alone during the typically anodyne holiday season, so for that we should  be grateful. Nymphomaniac is everything that people will have anticipated and more. It is shocking, ugly, brutal, brilliant, farcical, challenging, enlightened, disturbing, irritating and absolutely relevant. It’s not just about the human animal – shaped by parental and societal influence – but about a myriad of subjects, from cinema to religion.

There’s a sense that Denmark’s premier provocateur has so much on his chest that these two volumes might have easily spilled over into a third. 

As with several of his previous films, Nymphomaniac is organised, after literary tradition, into ‘chapters’ and begins with Seligman’s (Skarsgaard) discovery of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character ‘Joe’. Left severely beaten, she’s found prostrate in a back alley. After she refuses an ambulance or police assistance, he takes her home with him and the narrative continues in the form of a conversation between the two.

Joe recounts her life-long sexual odyssey, from toddler up to the present moment, exploring in varying depth, observations on love, polygamy, homosexuality, parenthood, sadomasochism, paedophilia and loneliness. In this sense, the film takes the form of an essay as opposed to a story. Seligman listens and illustrates Joe’s stories with analogies from the natural world and his own book-like sphere of experience. 

Without doubt, the gender-neutrality of her name has been used  to place emphasis on the ease with which one might assign the opposite sex to her character’s exploits, which therefore reminds us of our cultural bias towards sexuality and in particular, the sexually empowered female. We’re reminded that the oppression of female sexuality is deeply ingrained in our cultural history, not least thanks to the efforts of the Western Church. It will be absurdly challenging, likely even threatening, for some to see this rarest of spectacles: a sexually aggressive young woman, liberated, insatiable and uncontrolled by a man, exploring and enjoying her nature.

Adversely, if many of these scenes (particularly those in the first volume) instead featured a male Joe, they would be commonplace, trivial even. 

Having kept schtum for the last two years, LVT re-emerges triumphantly from the Cannes debacle of 2011 – where he claimed to identify with Hitler during a press conference – as something of an unlikely humanitarian. True to form, no-one could accuse the auteur of playing it safe here. His voice is as loud as ever, and the characters are clearly vessels for him.

This is never more transparent than a scene in which the Jewish (by ancestry) Seligman advocates anti-Zionism while making it clear that it is quite another thing to be an anti-Semite. 

The most frustrating aspect of this film/mouthpiece is the work’s inability, or refusal, to disguise its essayistic nature. The film’s final seconds are a good example of how LVT allows his agenda to take priority over his characterisations. That closing moment, while admirable in sentiment, feels dramatically sensationalist – a betrayal of what has gone before. No doubt it proves difficult for LVT to resist occasionally pulling the rug out from under his audience in this way, but ultimately, it serves to weaken the integrity of his monumental construct.

The dirty mac brigade should save their cash, but cinephiles will rejoice as LVT reminds us how utterly banal the cinematic landscape has been without him.

Nymphomaniac, volume 1

Nymphomaniac, volume 2

Dir: Lars Von Trier; Den drama, 2013, 110mins + 130mins; Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe 

Premieres December 25
Playing Nationwide