Film Micrœview #148: Nymphomaniac (2013)

10.06.2014 § Leave a comment

Rating: Good.

I watched the director’s uncut version and both “parts” back to back.

Much intertextuality with Von Trier’s oeuvre* set this up as a reflexive addressing of issues Von Trier has gotten shit about publicly (abortion -> intellectual choice issues, political correctness, Hitler sympathy). Feels like an interior battle between two parts of Von Trier’s personality. And at the end one wins: in the beginning this is more perceptive but in the end it moves into judgmental. And my ideas about societal belonging were indeed challenged; it reminded me of my feelings reading Brave New World. Perhaps deeply humanist, accepting voices like Seligman’s are sometimes wrong.

There will be much debate over Von Trier’s decision with the very ending of Nymphomaniac. The reliability of the narrator within this film is questioned, so it’s fair ground to wonder whether the ending really happened or not (furthermore, the screen goes black and we get sound only, as it starts). The unreliable narrator idea is not merely stated but is also rendered: I believe I am meant to have trouble accepting this silly cliche device of her life experience being discovered to have equipped her for another life (in this instance, sex -> crime). And that the actor for one of the main characters never changes until a critical and tough-to-buy scene at the end — where her first sexual experience is connected to purportedly the inception of her last — underscores its tough-to-buy-ness (by the way, I’m glad I got to see an example of an idea I had some time ago: to have the switches from young to old actor for two characters to happen non-simultaneously), and this is hammered in with an obnoxious callback to a line she once shared with him at the peak of their happiness; she did say that her lovers were really all one, so I feel comfortable perceiving this character and all of his wild coincidences as a forgery of her need to cohere and make better tellable her life story. This material is so forced and out-of-place that I can only read the very end as a joke. I’ve never seen Von Trier so humorous as he is throughout the film, nor as hopeful as he is just before the very ending… and I think he actually earns the joke and gets it both ways, to be humorous about this hope.

That said, I didn’t need 6 hours of this. Not that any of the constituent stories were worthless! On the contrary I kind of rather wish he had developed each one into its own thing. The immaculate orgasm bit could have been great, or just the masochist stretch (great character and acting here). The father story and the adoption story were a little weaker. Uma Thurman’s scene was the highlight of the film — there was a ton going on here, for me the strongest aspect was Joe’s can’t-be-bothered yielding to a morbid fascination with just how bad the scene can go, because she is that detached from everyone involved that even the worst will not phase her. As Uma increasingly focuses her flailing emotions into anger, and focuses it on Joe, we understand that even though Joe doesn’t deserve her wrath for what Uma thinks she does, that because rather than saying anything more than “this is a big misunderstanding” and simply making it clear that Uma’s husband is so pathetic that he doesn’t even have a hope of being with her she is allowing the folks who are invested here dig themselves into holes they’ll never be able to escape, that it is the right here in which Joe is being horrible.

Also, for such an overtly explicit film, it sure told a lot rather than showed it. I realize the frame story is self-aware of its artificiality and stiltedness, and that perhaps I wasn’t meant to enjoy it. It did create, strong as I’d ever felt it, that wonderful tension hovering, wondering between whether this character opens up like this to all random people, or why now / why this person. But overall it was too weird a mix of rhetoric and drama, and I don’t feel tied up. “That was your least successful digression yet” she tells Seligman at one point, and I share her anger, but directed at Von Trier, but realize it’s Von Trier’s joke, but ultimately wonder whether it was worth it.

A film on this subject easily could have been a lot, lot, lot worse. Von Trier avoids making any wrong moves (such as an explicable reason for her condition), and for that he deserves a medal. Now, there were sometimes wince-inducing stylistic flourishes (math on screen, black and white episodes, etc.) And I love Rammstein, but what the fuck was up with the Rammstein? And the “more from the sunset” -> little patch of light thing was a tad overwrought. But I felt very moved when she discovered her soul tree, and I suppose for that alone it was worth it. Von Trier has created a strong female character in a religiously feminist tale, even one beyond feminism and about ones right not to belong — and critically the occasional unfortunate necessity of it — and the world is better for it.

One last note: false advertising, half of the characters whose O-faces are shown in movie posters are never sexualized.

* 1) a scene that almost becomes a re-enactment of the opening of Antichrist

2) rain from Element of Crime

3) train of Zentropa

4) clip from The Kingdom

5) Little Fucks -> Dogme 95 (and the fact that the death at the end is not shown; while this is certainly far from a Dogme film, that was one of the rules)

6) perhaps even his short film Occupations from the omnibus To Each His Own Cinema, there, a bit at the end

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