Ball Torture, With Fishing Metaphors
Normally I enjoy that Lars Von Trier is always trying to provoke a reaction, to subvert the medium, the punk rock, sneering-at-the-audience quality of it all. But there are different ways to spend two (or three) hours flipping off the audience, and Nymphomaniac, with its promise of hardcore dongs-going-in action, rather than being the GG Allin-esque spectacle I was expecting, was more like if GG Allin had gone onstage in a nice houndstooth coat with leather patches on the elbows and read to us from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “Oh, I’m sorry, were you expecting me to smear blood and shit on myself?” GG Von Trier seems to say wryly, his nipples hardening sadistically beneath a gingham shirt as you grow more and more bored.
At least, that’s the way I felt watching Nymphomaniac Volume 1, The Long Version (aka Nymphomaniac: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, which I wish many others hadn’t thought of before me). It’s not that it’s a bad story, in fact it seems to be mostly a pretty enjoyable one. It’s more that it’s a good story told BRUTALLY SLOWLY. Lars seems to know that we all bought a ticket to see the dongs go in, and instead he opens the film with five long minutes of rain drops on corrugated metal, his vulgar little sphincter puckering with glee as more and more in the audience wonder whether this nature film even has characters.
Once he’s finally finished filming rain drops, complete with a cut to black and a jarring Rammstein riff blaring over the title card (nice), we meet Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is lying flat on her back in the courtyard outside Stellan Skarsgard’s apartment, her face bruised and scratched from an apparent beating. He takes her inside to recuperate with all the gentle English civility of Paddington Bear, and as he sits on the edge of the guest bed, she starts to recount her life story, of her erotic journey from Milan to Minsk. Though the topic is sex, they speak to each other politely, formal to an absurd degree, like two professors in a sample exercise from a language book. “Did you go to the library today? Splendid. I too enjoy going to the library, and also to drink the coffee with friends.”
At first it’s funny, in an arch way, this woman describing the life cycle of her cunt (they both agree to call it a cunt) while the pompous math professor from Good Will Hunting constantly breaks in to talk about fish. To explain to her why her lifelong mission to catch some dick is perfectly analogous to his life long mission to catch some fish. Everything is a fly fishing analogy, her cunt the bait, with him interjecting some sexually provocative names for lures, like “the Finnish wobbler.” She moves from one story to the next, trying and failing to convince him that she’s a terrible person for liking sex, insisting that this next one, that one will finally convince him. Maybe it’s fascinating if the idea that sex isn’t shameful comes as a revelation to you, or enjoyable in that way that so many enjoy hearing their own already-held views reinforced.
All the while, tales are told in flashback, of Young Joe (played by Stacy Martin) masturbating in the womb, blowing a married man on the train (complete with semen closeup), losing her V-card to a moped owner, vaginally lubricating to the sight of her dead father, etc.
There are many fine scenes as well, particularly the one where Uma Thurman plays a scorned wife who has brought her children to Joe’s apartment to say goodbye to their cheating father, and to “see the whoring bed.” This scene was nothing short of sublime and I wanted the whole movie to be like it, which I think Lars Von Trier knew instinctively, and thus followed up with an excruciating million-minute riff on Edgar Allen Poe set to Joe’s slowly dying father played by Christian Slater, just to screw with me. That scene in particular, which I’m told was noticeably shorter in the abbreviated cut, was TORTURE. It just goes on and on and on and on and on, apparently to illustrate Joe’s existential sadness and subsequent numbness to sex. Ooh boy, sad, detached loneliness? Always my favorite emotion to explore in films! More protagonists staring lethargically into the middle distance, please!
The only good part about Joe’s dad dying was me imagining the conversation Lars Von Trier must have had with Christian Slater, whose entire forehead has been Botoxed to a Tusseaudian sheen and artfully reconstructed by highly-paid surgeons. A conversation in which Mr. Von Trier tries to convince Hard Harry to play a man apparently dying of old age, without the benefit of make-up or any real attempt to make him look sickly or older. “What, you mean my character is dying? You mean, like, of a fluke brain tumor? Rare tropical disease? …No? You mean he’s just… dying? And you want me to play him? But… why? I’m so youthful! Spry like a college boy, I am! Heck, watch me kick this soccer ball!”
Both Slater’s and Shia LaBeouf’s attempt at British accents seem like yet another way Von Trier is trying to screw with us. Who hires Christian Slater and Shia LeBeouf to play Brits, anyway, except as a Jackass stunt?
If felt like making me ponder these things was the entire point of the casting choice. In a film ostensibly about sex, entitled “Nymphomaniac,” no less, Lars Von Trier has created a work that doesn’t seem particularly interested in the sexual act. Somehow the dongs always look fake and the penetration nearly always shot from some strange angle I haven’t seen before. An impressive achievement, considering I’ve worked as a porn editor in the past and have seen the dongs go in from what I thought was just about every perspective. Whether it’s the effect of the digital grafting process or if some of the dongs were actually fake or what, the film’s strength is that Von Trier lets you experience sex divorced from titillation or desire, almost as an alien would. Sort of like when you take mushrooms and it feels like you’re seeing the carpet for the first time, or that you’re suddenly considering the very notion of a carpet. Only with sex.
In fact, what really seems to get Lars off, is slow and meticulous explanations of things. What kinds of things? I’m glad you asked! All kinds of things! Fly fishing, ash trees, parallel parking, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, delirium tremens, Fibonacci numbers, cake forks, the Huns, Epicurus’s take on death… All of these are explained in Nymphomaniac, by various characters, with encyclopedic thoroughness, complete with drawn diagrams. Christian Slater tells his daughter Joe the same story about why ash trees are called ash trees no less than three separate times.
It’s such a perfectly dorky, mundane story, and I’m sure it makes Lars giggle like a Danish lunatic and dance impishly from toe to toe to include it in a sex movie. This tedium is not accidental. As Von Trier told a British interviewer more than a year ago, Nymphomaniac was meant to be “extremely long, extremely boring and extremely philosophical†.”
Ding ding ding!
If both parts of Nymphomaniac were screened together and pared down to a two, maybe two and a half hour movie, I think it would be fantastic. But that wouldn’t allow Mr. Persona Au Gratin to get his ya-yas out nearly as much. It seems Lars is trying to turn vaguely tedious minutiae into an art form. Which is somewhat… revolutionary? Clever? Impish? I get what he was trying to do, but I also don’t want to watch Christian Slater poop himself and have nightmares for 20 minutes. There were moments of brilliance, like the Uma scene, but to me it felt like a few delicious morsels in an otherwise bland stew. And if I’m eating fuck stew, I want it thick and chunky. Just like your mom used to make.
†Incidentally, during the same interview, Von Trier said of Ash trees:
‘Recently, I’ve been teaching my kids the names of trees.’ So, which is this, I ask, amused to be seeking a nature lesson from the director of ‘Antichrist’. ‘That’s an ash. It has such beautiful leaves; I remember filming them for my first 8mm films. The problem is it’s also the symbol of a far-right party. And, also, Wagner wrote a lot about the ash. So I need to stay clear of it.’
But it’s just a leaf, I say, as we step out of the rain and into his cabin, outside of which he has parked a more regular form of transport, a small BMW. ‘No,’ he says, looking serious. ‘Nothing is ever just a leaf.’
I dunno, man. Dude just loves leaves, I guess.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.