In 1995, Danish auteur and consummate rabble-rouser Lars Von Trier and his friend Thomas Vinterberg founded the “Dogme 95” movement, an austere manifesto which bid filmmakers to return to the traditional values of story, acting, and theme. The rules of the Manifesto forbid filmmakers from shooting on soundstages, using music, utilizing hand held camera work, shooting in black and white, or featuring any “superficial action”, such as murder, in their pictures. For years, Von Trier created a number of films as staid and lifeless and this self-imposed restriction would imply, until finally realizing the futility of Dogme and giving up on its tenets around the turn of the new Millenium.
Looking back, one has to wonder what the ’95 Von Trier would make of 2013’s Nymphomaniac, an epic project that shatters every single rule of the manifesto with malicious gusto and comes out all the better for it. The film, which was broken into two parts for its theatrical release a la Kill Bill, opens with elderly academic Seligmen (Stellan Skarsgard) discovering a middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying prone in an alleyway, badly beaten. He takes her back to his flat, where she proceeds to tell the naive bachelor her lurid life story, tracing the salacious path she took as a young woman pathologically obsessed with sex.
For the bulk of the film(s) we flash back to track the younger Joe (Stacy Martin) experimenting with all matter of erotic depravity as she seeks a deeper emotional fulfillment through the emptiness of primal carnality. She falls in and out of love with dapper dillitante Jerome (Shia LeBeouf) and causes a volatile marital conflict for her bland lover H (Hugo Speer) and his fiery wife Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), before truly going off the rails after the death of her father (Christian Slater). As her nymphomania ventures into darker, sadomasochistic corners, Joe finds herself spiraling into a life of crime, acting as a hit-woman for vicious crime boss L (Willem Dafoe). What follows is a bizarre string of twists and turns leading Joe irrevocably towards danger and doom.
If you couldn’t tell from that plot description, this film certainly isn’t cheerful, but it does have a certain childlike joie de vivre that sets it apart from Von Trier’s earlier works, and couldn’t feel any more different from the Dogme precepts. For instance, whenever old Seligmen goes on an obscure literary tangent, Von Trier interweaves experimental sequences of stop motion psychedelia resembling the works of Stan Brakhage within its narrative fold. In addition, the fim is beautifully scored with a host of German classical music which oddly intersects with its poetic sense of high allegory. There is hand-held shooting, black-and-white interludes, and, on the plot end, lots of murder. In short, this is Von Trier at his freest, having rebuked the stodginess of his youth for a newfound sense of playfulness behind the camera, resulting in what is easily his finest work.
Overall, this movie can be tough to watch at times—the sexual content is graphic and disturbing, and the deeper philosophy is dishearteningly nihilistic. With that being said, it’s the first time I’ve ever considered a work of Lars Von Trier, or any director of his ilk, to be truly fun. For that reason alone, Nymphomaniac is well worth a watch. Special features include three featurettes interviewing the cast and trailers.