The term “train wreck” is tossed around more liberally in cinematic circles than in the railway industry. It seems working on films all the live-long day can make you more cuckoo than a choo-choo driver. Case in point: Lars von Trier.
The guy begs psychological analysis and, by his own admission, is a bit nuts. However, the Danish writer-director is certainly no hack, at least not on the surface, thanks to his comprehension of craft and his desire, albeit misguided at times, to break new artistic ground. Love or hate Antichrist and Melancholia, the first two films in his “depression trilogy,” you can’t easily dismiss them.
His final additions to the trilogy are Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 and Volume 2, though they have no stories or characters in common with his earlier films. These latest works have been cut into separate offerings from an original movie totaling an exhausting five hours. Despite von Trier’s ambitious intentions of profoundly probing sexual addiction, the movies are essentially studies in his own “auteurmania.” The symptoms are excess, pretension and delusions of grandeur, and, unfortunately for us, he prefers to battle this demon on the big screen rather than in therapy, where it belongs.
In Volume 1, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) meets sex addict Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) after she’s brutally beaten. She refuses medical treatment, so Seligman, a sympathetic listener with a secret of his own, takes her to his home, where she proceeds to recount her life, in a sort of contrived, half-ass shrink session.
“You wouldn’t understand,” she tells Seligman when he asks to hear her story. “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
But von Trier knows where to begin. He just doesn’t know where to end, as the two films last a combined four hours. Maybe we should have paid more attention when Joe said to Seligman, “It’ll be long,” referring to her tale. She wasn’t kidding.
The rest of the first film is devoted to Joe’s childhood and young adulthood. We meet her father (Christian Slater), the jealous wife of one of her lovers (Uma Thurman, in an embarrassingly unbelievable role) and the love of her life (Shia LaBeouf, who lives up to his name by often being in the buff.) And, yes, we do see penetration and fellatio, but apparently porn actors’ genitals were digitally added. That might have saved LaBeouf embarrassment, but the fake British accent brings back the shame in spades, as it does for many of the other actors, whose dialects also seem adrift.
Volume 2, which is darker, more violent, more tragic and even sexier at times, is also a tad better and might have risen to 2 stars (on our 0-5 scale) if not for the jaw-droppingly bad ending. It features Gainsbourg herself as a younger Joe (as opposed to the much younger version played competently by Stacy Martin in Volume 1). It also introduces Joe’s young friend and protégé (the mesmerizing Mia Goth), a business partner (Willem Dafoe), a sadist (Jamie Bell) and an older version of LaBeouf’s character, though Joe stays the same age during the same time span. (Can someone introduce von Trier to aging makeup?)
Divided into chapters, Joe’s stories are told in flashback, complete with changing shooting styles, color palettes and aspect ratios, along with a nauseating overuse of handheld camera, tight close-ups that cut off tops of heads in the 2.35:1 format and von Trier’s annoying habit of inserting unnecessary visuals to punch up metaphors. (Apparently we need an image of stars to accompany the phrase “alone in the universe.”)
The stupidity doesn’t stop at the visual insertions, as von Trier peppers ridiculous analyses throughout his subpar script. Instead of engaging in mature conversations about obsession, he throws around off-the-wall ideas about fishing, religion, history and even culinary arts. In an attempt to either shock or confuse, he includes lines such as “Fill all my holes,” “I discovered my c*** as a 2-year-old” and “Your story is like a blasphemous retelling of the transfiguration of Jesus on the Mount.” Once all this mess seeps in, you may realize that you know little more about nymphomania than when Volume 1 started.
But you will know more about von Trier, which is maybe the way the self-absorbed director wants it.
“How awful that everything has to be so trivial,” Joe says. Maybe life has to be trivial, but movies don’t, unless you’re a certain Danish director who wants to force his psychosis on the viewing public.
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