Where To Start With… Lars von Trier
Few filmmakers in recent years have polarised opinion with their work more than Lars von Trier, and none more so than with his latest film. Released on Blu-Ray and DVD next week, Nymphomaniac (Volumes I & II) stars Charlotte Gainsbourg alongside a stellar cast that includes Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LeBeouf and Stacey Martin. The film follows the story of a woman named Joe (Gainsbourg), who is found wounded and unconscious in an alleyway by a man named Seligman (Skarsgård).
Seligman takes Joe home, where she tells him about her nymphomania and recounts stories of her sexual experiences with hundreds of men, while in exchange he tries to relate to her by drawing parallels with his rather more mundane pastimes that include fly fishing and reading about the Fibonacci sequence. That might sound pretty tame, but the film is interspersed with many scenes of a very graphic sexual nature, which has proved too much for some, while others have accused the director of being deliberately provocative and making a film solely for shock value.
That isn’t the only criticism that has been levelled at the film though, in fact much of the panning the film has received from critics centres around the way von Trier’s film creates a sense of detachment and alienation among audiences, including Gainsbourg’s deadpan, sometimes emotionless line delivery. But all of this misses the point: Nymphomaniac isn’t really a film about sex so much as it’s a film about aspects of the human condition, such as the desire for transcendence and whether or not we are spiritually equipped to handle it. The sex is allegorical and, in much the same way as Bertolt Brecht used to write plays for the theatre, the sense of detachment is deliberate choice from the director, preferring that the audience should not relate directly to the characters, rather the experience of watching the film should provoke self-reflection.
If you’re not familiar with von Trier’s work and you’re looking for the kind of film that offers a couple of hours of escapism, then you won’t find it here. If, however, you’re the kind of cinema goer that sees film as an artistic medium beyond mere entertainment – and if you can stomach all the relentless shagging – then this is a challenging and thought-provoking film that’s well worth watching.
For those considering checking out the film, we’ve picked out 3 other works from Lars von Trier to ease you in gently…
Dancer in the Dark
This film is still regarded by many as his best work yet, winning the director the prestigious Palm d’Or at the Cannes film festival that year. Featuring a surprisingly brilliant performance from Bjork in the lead role as Selma, an émigré from central Europe to America in the mid-1960s, the film details her life working two jobs to support herself and her son who, like her, has a medical condition that will eventually cause blindness. Her escape from this tough life is her love of musicals, with the film packed with surreal dream sequences in which Selma dances and sings her way through everyday life. Original, moving and featuring some stunning cinematography, it’s a film that deserves its plaudits.
The first in von Trier’s ‘Depression’ trilogy of films (Nymphomaniac being the last), Antichrist also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, this time alongside Willem Defoe, both of whom portray a couple whose lives are tunred upside down when their young son falls from a window to his death while they are busy having sex in an adjacent room. The guilt drives the mother into hospital, but the father, who happens to be a therapist, insists on treating her resulting depression himself, taking his wife to their remote cabin retreat in a forest, where they begin to descend into a downward spiral of physical and sexual violence. Not easy viewing, but compelling nevertheless.
The second of the ‘Depression’ films stars Kirsten Dunst and, once again, Charlotte Gainsbourg alongside another impressive cast that counts Charlotte Rampling, Kiefer Sutherland and John Hurt among its ranks. Dunst and Gainsbourg play sisters Justine and Claire respectively, whose already terse relationship is strained further when, on the eve of Justine’s wedding, it transpires that a mysterious planet named Melancholia looks to be on a collision course with Earth. It’s an odd concept, for sure, but as ever with von Trier’s films the dialogue is smart and thought provoking throughout and the performances are fantastic.
Nymphomaniac (Volumes I & II) will be available from hmv stores from April 28. You can pre-oder it now from your local hmv