Deeply unsexy, incredibly bleak and so long they have to show it in two sittings. Oh, and Nymphomaniac is written and directed by Lars von Trier, a man whose earlier output may have had you reaching for the smelling salts or desperately eyeing the cinema exit.
From Breaking the Waves (Emily Watson as a simpleminded Scot pushed into sexual abandon by her paralysed oil-worker husband) through Dancer in the Dark (Björk as a Sixties single mother slowly going blind) to Dogville (Nicole Kidman as a glamourpuss enslaved by yokels), von Trier’s films have been cruel – to the audience as much as their leading ladies – gruelling and gruesome; his status as critical darling, therefore, has been as baffling as his plots.
The Danish wag’s latest release is the completion of his “depression trilogy”, which began with Antichrist (horrific self-mutilation and a talking fox) and continued with Melancholia (bourgeois types fret about the end of the world, audience fervently prays for it).
After all that, it has to be said, Nymphomaniac comes as something of a relief. The four-hour-long film follows the story of Joe, a sex-addicted woman (played as an adolescent by newcomer Stacy Martin and then as an adult by von Trier stalwart Charlotte Gainsbourg), from naughty schoolgirl to humper of anything that isn’t nailed down, and some things that are.
Sliced into seven chapters, the film takes in bondage and double penetration, sticks several dessert spoons where the sun don’t shine (you’ll never dive into an Eton mess in quite the same way again), as well as Edgar Allan Poe, sex act “the silent duck” and fly fishing, which serves as a metaphor for some of Joe’s sexcapades.
With it, possibly inadvertently, von Trier has done what previously seemed impossible and made a film that is not only watchable, but often laugh-out-loud funny. There’s a parade of profanity and profundity, with Jamie Bell as a sadist, hapless former Hollywood heartthrob Shia LaBeouf all at sea, and an electrifying Uma Thurman as a wronged wife who shows her kids around an adulteress’s bedroom in case they might need to recall the scene for therapy later.
“Would it be alright if I showed them the whoring bed?” she says, which may be the film’s way of suggesting the viewer might need a bit of a lie down on the leather couch afterwards, too. When you do, you’ll likely be laughing more than crying.
Nymphomaniac Volume I and II are out this month