April 29, 2014

No lovers left alive

Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier, 2013). Von Trier’s sex epic is at its best when it seems like an anguished sequel to Antichrist, with Charlotte Gainsbourg as the director’s most effective suffering surrogate or disordered woman and Stellan Skarsgard as his most patient listener, and at its worst when von Trier seems to be simply impersonating 70s Euro-smut pretensions with a straight face (largely in the first half, when the less expressive Stacy Martin is in the Gainsbourg part). A throwback to 70s daringness and 70s auteurism is the point, of course, and is part of why Nymphomaniac feels both dated and out of time. Is it even possible that Skarsgard’s namechecking of The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and 1001 Nights during the long overnight conversation that frames the film is von Trier’s way of handing the Pasolini baton to himself? (The literary storytelling devices are also highly Sadean.) Nymphomaniac concludes von Trier’s “depression” trilogy and it’s been fascinating to see how, since Antichrist, he has created a kind of non-specific von-Trier-land somewhere in Europe, where English is spoken in a range of soft accents by a regular company of actors, joined this time by Christian Slater and Uma Thurman, both doing their best work in years. This is sometimes ridiculous, sometimes brazen and always provocative: as ever in von Trier, black humour and philosophical heaviness live side by side or are even interchangeable, such as in the stunning blasphemous hallucination or non-religious ecstasy sequence early in the second half (during those moments, you can easily read this as the Satanic Breaking the Waves).