Lars Von Trier’s wild, sprawling Nymphomaniac is an orgy of the sublime and the ridiculous. It exists in two versions of differing lengths and explicitness. The first episode of the shorter, cleaner version opens with a disclaimer stating that the director wasn’t involved in the editing – although it has been cut with his permission from the longer, Lars-approved film. You feel short-changed: whose film is it then? What am I missing? Bigger cocks? More close-ups of injured, over-exercised clitorises? Oh yes, there’s nothing coy about it.
Nymphomaniac is the story – over several decades – of one woman, Joe’s self-destructive sex life, first as a young girl, then in her teens and twenties (played by dazzling newcomer Stacy Martin) and later middle-aged (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s framed by Joe in the present (Gainsbourg) recalling her life to a man (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds her crumpled and bloodied in an alleyway and takes her back to his place to recover. We cut from this long, dark night of Joe baring her soul in this bookish virgin’s sparse flat to flashes of her past, including her early discovery of her sexuality (‘I discovered my c*nt as a two-year-old’) and youthful tallies of sexual conquests.
Chaotic and not especially pretty, the film has more of the punkish, radical spirit of Von Trier’s The Idiots or Dogville than the gloss or contained drama of Melancholia or Antichrist – although the nominal British setting and interest in religion and a promiscuous woman nod to Breaking the Waves too.
There’s plenty of flesh (much of it belonging to porn doubles), although the film is rarely, if ever, what most people would call erotic or pornographic. It’s neither deeply serious nor totally insincere; hovering somewhere between the two, it creates its own mesmerising power by floating above specifics of time and place, undercutting its main focus with bizarre digressions (fly-fishing, maths, religion), a ragbag of acting styles and archive footage. There’s humour too, not least when the wife (Uma Thurman) of one of Joe’s lovers turns up at Joe’s flat with her three young kids in tow. Enormous penises flash across the screen; tragedy sits next to comedy. It feels like an X-rated farce, a circus of genitalia.
"Which way will you get the most out of my story?" asks Joe. "By believing in it? Or not believing in it?" It’s this sort of narrative playfulness that keeps you close and keeps you guessing – even if it also stops Von Trier from doing anything as conservative or reassuring as offering a clear opinion or coherent perspective via his teasing scrapbook of sexual adventure.
Von Trier’s epic ssumes a darker shade in this second, final episode. Our anti-heroine Joe now recounts to her one-man audience how, in middle age, she came to lose all sense of sexual pleasure and find a sadder joy in masochism, threat and violence. While much of the sex in the first film came across as a childish game, here it feels like self-imposed punishment as Joe submits to the whips of an S&M master (Jamie Bell) and the dangerous thrills of sex with strangers, abandoning her sleeping child at night.
It’s now, too, that Von Trier starts to bring together loose strands and build theme upon theme. If he directed Les Misérables, it would look like this: time-hopping, expansive, episodic, crude, jolty, anarchic, self-deprecating but also unashamedly melodramatic by the time it reaches its conclusion. Joe is on a tragic trajectory and can’t escape her past: that past, we learn, is Jérome (Shia LaBeouf), her first lover and later her boss, partner, father of her child and ultimately her nemesis. The pair meet and re-meet with all the subtlety of dodgy opera. Von Trier even makes a joke of this by having Gainsbourg admit in her confession-narration to Skarsgård that coincidences in her tale are rife. It’s this self-mockery that stops Nymphomaniac being overly grim and reminds you of the puppetmaster behind it all. We’re never far from Von Trier, and both Skarsgård and Gainsbourg appear to offer different versions of the author himself.
Von Trier’s pooling of an international cast (Bell, LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jean-Marc Barr and others), all speaking English in continental European settings, has become a filmmaking style all of its own. You either run with it or laugh. Roughly, this is supposed to be England (only the currency gives it away; LaBeouf’s wonky accent is presumably the decoy) and equally roughly, between Part One and Part Two, we move from the 1970s to now. But rough is the word: you don’t come to a Von Trier film for social realism and a cast-iron sense of time and place. You come for raw honesty; provocation; contradictions; flights of fancy. You also come for brave, committed turns from actresses. And both newcomer Martin and old-hand Gainsbourg anchor these two films with performances you can’t take your eyes off; they’re the calm eyes of Von Trier’s storm.
Is there any sign here of a chastened Von Trier after the ‘I’m a Nazi’ scandal that engulfed him at Cannes in 2011? You only have to hear Skarsgård’s character musing on how non-active paedophiles ‘deserve a medal’ or see Gainsbourg sandwiched between two African immigrants with hard-ons to know the answer. He might not have been in control of the edit of this version of his film (the uncut version will emerge later), but the frank, unflinching and playful two-part Nymphomaniac couldn’t have been made by anyone else.