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Worn Muses

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Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin (right) in Nymphomaniac: Volume I

Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin (right) in Nymphomaniac: Volume I

Generally speaking, I wanted the first evening-long film in Nymphomaniac (labeled Volume I) and would recommend it to anyone out for a good time. I did not want Volume II. More specifically, I wanted three long, remarkable episodes in Volume I, two of which ground the fantasy of boundless female sexual desire in mundane realities.

The first reality: scheduling. Reasonably supposing that an insatiable woman might have many lovers on call, von Trier imagines that Joe would have difficulty getting them in and out of her apartment smoothly. This idea leads him to dramatize the life of a nymphomaniac as farce, seen on a night when two inadvertently overlapping assignations are interrupted by the sudden intrusion of an abandoned wife. The latter is played by Uma Thurman in a protracted, virtuosic turn that lets her begin with mock Seligman-like gentility, escalate into devastatingly funny sarcasm and finish with an animal roar. The only fault I can find with this sequence is that it includes no actors who can hold their own against her—certainly not Stacy Martin, the reedy, lank-haired actress who plays the young Joe in most of Volume I’s flashbacks. At various times Martin proves she can be sly, mutable, extraordinarily game and a little troubling (with a spectral face that might put you in mind of a grown-up Wednesday Addams), but in the farce episode, all she can do is stand back and wait for Hurricane Uma to blow through.

Underlying the laughter of this episode is a darker but incontrovertible reality of sexual pleasure: our pursuit of it can lead us to hurt people. But the pursuit can also keep us alive, which is the theme of the next episode I wanted, in which Joe stays by the side of her beloved father (Christian Slater) as he’s dying in the hospital. No indignity is spared this kind, thoughtful man at the end of his life, from the loss of bowel control to the onset of delirium. Joe, who lives by the flesh and is seeing what the flesh becomes, faithfully sticks it out with him. As she does so, in a sequence that’s played for stakes that seem dreadfully real, von Trier suggests that an insistent sexual urge might be a source of guilt for a woman in this situation but also a sorely needed way to assert her will to go on—even if she has to satisfy that need with a stranger somewhere in the bowels of the hospital. Here is the life of a nymphomaniac as tragedy.

As for the life of a nymphomaniac as ecstasy, von Trier rises to the theme with an amazing stunt at the end of Volume I. He has Joe associate three of her lovers with the three voices of Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, to which Seligman has just introduced her, adding comparisons to different species of wildlife for good measure. Out of these links, von Trier builds a magisterial split-screen montage of images and sounds that are sacred and profane, found and invented—a polyphony of organ playing, organ fondling and natural wonder that lifts Nymphomaniac into erotic and cinematic heaven.

And then it’s cut short. Volume I is over. Time to pay for the pleasure with Volume II.

Distinct from Volume I in tone, pacing and the presence of Gainsbourg in most of the flashbacks as the mature Joe, Volume II is conceived as an exercise in exhaustion, dramatizing how things fall apart when the narrator runs out of prompts for her stories, the self-styled psychoanalyst and cultural guide loses his subject’s interest, and the habitually voracious woman no longer feels that sex is a thrill. Here again, von Trier grounds at least one of his scenarios in a commonly encountered situation, imagining how Joe’s libido would drain away if she were to settle into bourgeois life with a husband and small child. (It’s the life of the nymphomaniac as dreary domestic melodrama.) Mostly, though, Volume II is about the rechanneling of frustrated eros into violence against oneself and others—an idea so obvious as to suggest that von Trier’s hard-working muse has also been worn out.

He tries to jump-start the stalled movie with a couple of public pranks, of the sort that he’s staged since The Idiots, and a tryst between Joe and two African men that is too obvious a provocation to provoke much of anything, except impatience. This is all prelude, though, to the core of Volume II, which is devoted to Joe’s submission to torture at the hands of a sadist known as K (Jamie Bell). I can say, in von Trier’s defense, that even though he lingers over these sequences, he lacks the relish for them that you find, for example, in Michael Haneke. But if there’s no joy of invention in the way von Trier realizes these scenes, neither is there a motivating emotional force in them, or in the later sequences in which Joe lays claim to the whip hand, and to the man’s name she’s been bearing throughout the film. All you get out of these episodes is a sense of the writer-director’s determination to play out a schema about women and men, love and pain, power and degradation, that may be ironclad in its logic but is artistically wooden, at least compared with the continual bubbling up of surprise in Volume I.

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Maybe von Trier would insist that this is what I bargained for. No tumescence without detumescence; no fun in I without the consequences in II. But if this is a fair description of the way Nymphomaniac works, then I think von Trier ultimately maneuvers himself into a trap, retreating into the moralism that is Seligman’s dirty and much-denied secret. I freely confess to having been ravished by Volume I and don’t feel the least bit guilty about devoting a column to the matched set of films. The mere fact that they encourage so much thinking sets them far above the general run of movie product. But rather than yield to von Trier’s dialectic, I would advise others to do the wrong thing and break off with Volume I, when the games end. For those of us who don’t mind literature, they’re all good bits.

* * *

Attention, if not respect, must be paid to first-weekend box office totals of $54.6 million and $44 million, and so I pause to acknowledge the commercial success of Divergent and Noah. The first, based on a series of young-adult novels by Veronica Roth, was of most interest to me for converting the marvelously winning and candid Shailene Woodley of The Descendants into a standard-issue girl-power heroine, while turning my beloved Chicago architecture into a pile of ruins. Thanks so much. The latter, based on sketchy and mutually contradictory texts reputedly dictated by God Almighty, replaces the wonder, dread and mystery of the original with thuddingly obvious deployments of CGI and long, shouted speeches that tell you exactly what to think. Together, Divergent and Noah teach a lesson of their own: that stories about inspired outsiders who struggle against their corrupt societies can make a lot of money, if told so as to meet the existing society’s conventions. I think I’ll go look for some more nympho action.

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