BY PETER MCGORAN
Lars Von Trier’s sex epic, Nymphomaniac Pt. 1 & 2, shows the controversial writer and director back on form with a film which is, as a whole, graphic, unsettling and poignantly confrontational. Framed around the story of Joe – an unremitting sex addict – the film is an unbridled exploration of sexuality, as well as being a deeply intense character study.
Joe (played in her younger years by Stacy Martin and as an older woman by Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found lying beaten and dishevelled in an alleyway by the mysterious and bookish Saligman (Stellan Skarsgard) who takes her in and guides her as she reveals the story of her life as a self-proclaimed and unapologetic nymphomaniac. Beginning with the loss of her virginity to future long-term lover, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), Joe’s character is consumed by powerful, suffocating sexual urges which drag her into situations ranging from blackly humorous to down-right shocking and depraved. With a comically tragic cameo by Uma Thurman and a spine-chilling performance by Jamie Bell as a violent sadist, the film is rich in character and wide in its breadth of sexual enquiry. Turning commonly conceived ideas about sex on their head, relishing in the controversial and the problematic, this maturely conceived sex story begins in a dark alley and leads us down darker ones throughout, refusing to shy away from the captivating, the complex and even the criminal elements that can become embroiled with sexuality.
Each chapter of Joe’s life is captured beautifully by Von Trier’s hawk-eye directing an Martin’s and Gainsbourg’s seamless acting so that even in the most torturous moments of the film, there is something elevated and even poetic about the on-screen performance. Underneath the surface of the story there is a rich subtext where questions are raised about religion, divinity, desire and societal and gender values through the medium of sex addiction. Often, these ideas are expressed through the character Saligman who (possibly too often) seems to have an answer for every one of Joe’s problems and a way of placing meaning and understanding on her story.
The ideas put across in the film are often as unsettling as the most explicit scenes (rarely, for example, do we watch a film where paedophiles are called ‘heroic’ for not acting on their urges) and such is the nature of Nymphomaniac that after four hours of viewing you are likely to come out more bewildered than when you went in. As with all Von Trier’s work, this film is worthwhile viewing, but it is also worthwhile bracing yourself beforehand – the Certificate 18 rating barely accounts for the eye-opening sexual odyssey that is Nymphomaniac.
Nymphomaniac Pt. 1 & 2 showing in the QFT from 28th of February – 3rd of March. Find tickets here: http://www.queensfilmtheatre.com/films/nymphomaniac-volume-i/