|The posters were a lie, by the way. You only get to see about 30% of these people's cum faces. Tops.|
Nymphomaniac is an epic four hour film by avant-garde director, Lars von Trier. It was split into two parts when released at the cinema presumably because there’s a limit to how much artily directed wall-to-wall sex your average cineaste can be expected to sit through even when there is a naked Stacy Martin on screen half the time. Naked Stacy Martin might actually be reason enough to watch Nymphomaniac. If there was some kind of Arse Oscars recognising the onscreen contributions of artist’s naked bottoms then she would be an absolute shoo-in this year.
|Another excellent performance by Stacy Martin's bum|
There is something oddly nostalgic about watching Nymphomaniac. It wears its avant garde credentials on its sleeves – it’s all split screens, incongruous soundtrack choices and carefully placed shots of inanimate objects - while delivering handsomely on the sex action which reminds me that back in the 1980s, I used to get all my smut this way. Back then the very best chance of seeing any kind of sex or full-frontal nudity was late at night on Channel 4. You had to know what you were looking for of course, the TV listings weren't going to just come out and tell you that a film would contain, say, a semi-erect penis and a woman being rogered over a writing desk. But you looked for the clues. Anything French was a good bet, obviously. Also anything described as ‘provocative’. The word ‘bacchanalian’ was an excellent recommendation to a horny teenager.
|Anything written by Dennis Potter was your best chance of seeing shagging on the BBC in the 1980s.|
Of course, horny teenagers don’t need to go to those sort of lengths these days. No sitting through hours of tedious existentialist dialogue in the hopes of the occasional glimpse of a French penis for them. They’ve got their ‘pornhub’s and their ‘two girls one cup’s now. They don’t know how lucky they are, frankly. Yet you try telling that to the teenager serving you in Sainsburys and they look at you like you’re mad.
Nymphomaniac would have been absolute godsend back in the 1980s. In fact, I’m not sure it would have been allowed. It tells the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is found beaten up in the street by passing mild-mannered pedestrian Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård otherwise known as the one who wasn’t Colin Firth or Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia). He takes her back to his for a cup of tea and a bit of a lie down and she tells him her story. Over the next eight chapters, Joe tells her rescuer every detail of her absurdly busy sex life from her first unsatisfactory sexual encounter through her thousands of sexual partners and experiences including affairs with married men, a lesbian lover, threesomes and a spot of BDSM.
Seligman is without a doubt the best thing in the entire film. He listens to Joe’s life story with a wide-eyed innocent impartiality. His contributions to the storytelling are baffling segues into fly fishing or mathematics or the history of the Catholic Church. They’re a great double act – Seligman and Joe. Like when Joe tells him that she and her friend walked through a crowded train trying to fuck as many passengers as possible, Seligman tells her how their actions were pretty much exactly like an angler trying to read the river.
|Wide eyed impartiality and an ability to link everything back to fly-fishing|
Joe tells Seligman of her first sexual encounter with a young man called Jerome. Young Joe is played by ridiculously beautiful Stacy Martin and Jerome is the bafflingly cast Shia La Beouf. “He shoved his cock inside me three times. Then he turned me over like a sack of potatoes and humped me five times in the arse”. Seligman immediately gets a bit excited by this story. “Three and five? Those are Fibonacci numbers,” he says enthusiastically.
Frankly if there’s a better way to top seeing Shia La Beouf’s penis for the first time than a discussion of mathematical integer sequences then I don’t want to hear about it.
|Phwoar, Look at the numbers on that,|
Shia La Beouf is a mesmerising addition to the film as Joe’s recurring sexual partner, Jerome. It’s nice to see the lad off Even Stevens doing so well for himself, obviously. There’s a vaguely maternal feeling of “Ah. You’re all grown up and takings ladies roughly up the arse, now? Doesn’t time fly?” Fuck knows what’s going on with the guy’s accent though. It’s like literally nothing on else on earth, meandering as it does via English, Australian, Danish, French and probably taking in a number of countries that only exist inside Shia La Beouf’s head.
|Strange things probably lurk inside Shia La Beouf's head.|
The film seems to be nominally set in England but there’s an odd 'Through the Looking Glass' feel to everything. Nobody speaks English like it’s their first language. At one point Joe and her friend, ‘B’ have challenged one another to fuck as many strangers as possible during a single train journey. The prize for racking up the largest number of dirty shags in the train toilets is “a bag of chocolate sweets.” Only nobody would ever say ‘chocolate sweets’. You’d say ‘chocolates’ or ‘sweets’ or, most likely, ‘M&Ms’ or something. The whole thing’s like that. Nothing’s wrong exactly. It’s just ever so slightly off.
There’s a sweetness to Stacy Martin as young Joe which adds rather than detracts to the believability of her character as an indiscriminate fucker of hundreds of random men. One can’t imagine that any man would want to say ‘no’ to her.
|In fact, everyone seems terribly flattered to be asked.|
By Nymphomaniac vol 2, Joe has grown up to become the character who is narrating the story (Gainsbourg) and the story takes a much darker edge. The second instalment starts with Joe trapped in an unhappy relationship with Jerome and suddenly unable to achieve orgasm.
The parts of the film featuring sadist, ‘K’ are the ones are of most interest to a spanko. Joe visits him in a “last desperate attempt to rehabilitate my sexuality”. Jamie Bell (another “Aw look how much you’ve grown! I remember when you were little Billy Elliot” moment there) plays the sought-after Dom quietly delivering lines like “I just want you to sit, completely relaxed, while I hit you in the face.”
K tells Joe that “there is no safe word. If you go inside with me there is nothing that you can say that will make me stop any plan or procedure.” That’s the sort of thing that annoys BDSMers who complain that their lifestyle is never correctly portrayed in the mainstream media. But, hey, given that absolutely nothing else in the film is particularly realistic, it would be asking a bit much for the film to suddenly start behaving responsibly at this stage.
If you’ve been thinking about adopting a BDSM lifestyle, don’t be looking to this film for inspiration, is my advice. Leaving your subs waiting for you in a grubby waiting room, calling them things like ‘Fido’ and stuffing a glove full of coins before hitting a woman round the face with it, might be the techniques favoured by K, here, but you know you might want to check it with your partner first.
Not that there isn’t plenty of straightforward Charlotte-Gainsbourg-being-spanked-on-the-arse action to enjoy. K spends an inordinate amount of time getting her into the exact position he wants over the sofa using a combinations of buckles, ropes and gaffer tape before soundly thrashing her with the riding crop he instructed her to buy.
Even if you like that sort of thing (and, you know, I do like that sort of thing) Von Trier seems determined to ensure that you’re not going to enjoy it on his watch.
All these scenes are set against a background of ongoing parental neglect by Joe who leaves her toddler son, Marcel alone in her apartment as she goes to visit K. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a mood-killer quite as comprehensive as child endangerment caused by shit parenting. So thanks, for that.
In Joe’s last session with K, she reaches orgasm just from the thrashing she receives. Von Trier doesn’t stint on the depiction of the whipping, the shots of Joe’s arousal or the close-up shots of her punished bottom but over the whole scene hangs the huge shadow of Joe’s failure as a parent. She has walked out Jerome and Marcel knowing that it means she will never see her son again. I don’t want fictional characters to have to choose between parental responsibility and being on the receiving end of a brutal spanking. It’s the 21st century, godammit. We can have it all.
Things never really perk up again for Joe after that and the rest of the film is a fairly dispiriting slog through Joe’s new career on the distinctly criminal side of the debt collection industry. It is during this time that she adopts a teenage apprentice, ‘P’, who seduces and then eventually betrays her.
Seligman continues to give good value with his barely-related-segues throughout the second half of the film. When Joe mentions K’s rope-tying skills during their bondage sessions, Seligman quickly grabs the opportunity to tell a story about a mountain climber escaping certain death by inventing a new knot. Rather unfairly, Joe dismisses the story. “I think this was one of your weakest digressions,” she tells him. Seriously, Joe? You thought it made less sense than the recurring Fibonacci references?
Anyone looking for a happy ending would probably do well to avoid this movie which does its level best to be as bleak as possible by the end. I’m not sure who I would recommend this film to, to be honest. In a Venn diagram depicting ‘Fans of Arty Farty Movies’ and ‘Fans of things where lots of shagging happens’, I would be very firmly placed in the overlappy bit and yet I’m not even sure this was my type of film. The film is very clear that it isn’t a romance. And other than enlightening viewers about the Silent Duck, it doesn’t seek to provide answers. I’m not even sure it asks many questions.