Nymphomaniac, the third instalment of Lars von Trier’s Trilogy of Depression, is split into two films. They chronicle the life story of self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as she tells it to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who has taken her in after finding her beaten and unconscious in an alley near his home.
Over tea and cake, Joe begins to recount a life of compulsive sexual activity, including everything from strange semi-religious experiences as a child to satanic underground groups as a teenager, all the way up to anonymous threesomes, extreme masochism and a life of crime as an adult. Somewhere in there, she meets and marries Jerôme (Shia LeBeouf – who appears to be channelling the Australian spirit of Dick Van Dyke) and has a child, but unfortunately her family falls by the wayside as her addiction cuts a swathe of destruction through her life. As she tells her tale (split into eight chapters, five in the first film and three in the second) the well-read Seligman offers comment and critical appraisal, stopping her at regular intervals to equate parts of her story with literary, mathematical and philosophical references.
These are just some of the seemingly random tangents that Seligman interrupts Joe’s rip-roaring tale to trundle down: fly-fishing, even more fly-fishing (it’s pretty much a fly-fishing movie for the first half hour), Fibonacci numbers, the conflict between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Devil’s Interval, and on. At first Joe seems mildly intrigued by his rambling, then even she begins to get fed up with it; “This is your weakest digression yet,” she tells him, following yet another disjointed reference. In truth, Joe is actually just as bad as he is; by the end of the second film she is using stains on the walls as prompts for the next chapter of her tale – because apparently she can’t just tell Seligman her life story, that would be too easy.
This slightly confusing framing device is only made mildly interesting by Seligman’s asexuality, something he is as frank about with Joe as she is about her nymphomania (she point blank refuses to call it sex addiction). While Joe’s story may be a bunch of dull cyclical sexual events with the odd bit of profundity thrown in, it gains a new layer of meaning simply because it is being told to someone who is asexual; the viewer is almost required therefore to regard the tale as if she is also asexual, viewing the events from an impartial position. However, even this small amount of meaning is later removed by the film’s conclusion, the bumbling awkwardness of which ruins any significance the relationship between Joe and Seligman might have had.
The odd bit of profundity that rears its head every now and then comes from Joe’s relationship with her father (Christian Slater). When Joe was a child, her father would take her to a forest in winter to teach her how to recognise trees without their leaves, telling her that the bare trunks were the ‘souls’ of the trees. “I think they look like human souls,” Joe says, and he agrees with her, saying that each person has their own soul tree. These scenes give us the only moments of true beauty in the film, reinforced later on when adult Joe feels drawn to climb to the top of a craggy peak, only to find her own soul tree, clinging precariously to the bare rock and twisted by the wind – a visual metaphor for her life, irrevocably scarred by her addiction.
The performances, including Gainsbourg’s and Skarsgård’s, are all pretty lacklustre, with a couple of notable exceptions. Uma Thurman comes out with an almost unrecognisable turn as Mrs H, the unhinged wife of one of young Joe’s many conquests. Mrs H show’s up at Joe’s flat along with her three silent sons and makes the most deliciously awkward scene, made all the more exquisitely awful by the fact that Joe, of course, does not give a hoot for her husband anyway. In film number 2, Jamie Bell (AKA Billy Elliot) steals the show as K, the anonymous sadist Joe visits in the hope that a few clever knots and a riding crop will re-ignite her libido. These scenes are almost unwatchably brilliant, but judging from the quality of the rest of both films, this is probably due more to Bell’s performance than to any directing skill on the part of von Trier.
Von Trier’s film says nothing interesting or meaningful about sex addiction – look to Steve McQueen’s Shame for that. This was a bit of a surprise, as his 2011 film Melancholia gave such an accurate depiction of depression, but then that was mostly down to Kirsten Dunst’s performance. As a whole, the two films fail to leave the viewer with any lasting impression of, well, anything really. Despite the odd moment of insight, they alternate between the dull and downright ridiculous, and what’s more, the films seem to be aware of their own ridiculousness, and not in a good way.
Who knows what goes through the head of Lars ‘persona non grata’ von Trier when he is making a film, but with Nymphomaniac he seems to have opted to be pretentious for the sake of being pretentious. As viewers, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that it’s all a massive joke at our expense.