Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" caused a stir even before a frame of the film was shot.
After a brusque (and much misunderstood) press conference in Cannes where his comments resulted in banishment from the festival, this film about identity, introspection and the divide between lust and love has been the talk of both tabloid press and serious film critics for many months.
For those that only know of Von Trier for this latest disruption, he has for the last several decades been one of the most controversial, and in turn most intriguing, directors working on the world stage. From beautiful and stylish films like "Europa" or "Melancholia" to stark and sombre tales of hope and redemption like "Breaking the Waves" or "Dancer in the Dark," Von Trier has long crafted films that are at once shattering and inviting, with narratives appearing distant, brutal and calculating, yet with a heart that's often surprisingly sweet.
Just as the obnoxious press conference overwhelmed what was at the film's core -- an actually quite funny, poignant point about his own identity -- too many dismiss his films as either boorish or exploitational. For those who see the works as something much more, however, they are works to be celebrated and re-watched, providing some of the most sublime moments of cinema that have ever been produced.
Yes, we watched all four-and-a-half hours so we could break the movie down for you, conveniently arranged in Q&A format.
Isn't this the one with Shia LeBoeuf's penis?
Well, sort of. The film does have Shia in it, and the Berlin premiere was when the famous "paper bag incident" took place. And, yes, there are plenty of genitals on display -- after all, in some ways a film about a nymphomaniac that was chaste on sexuality would be in many ways more perverse. That said, the film has one of the stranger credits in any film, describing that none of the main actors were engaged in actual intercourse, and that body doubles were used for this purpose. In other words, yes, one sees the stars of the film engaged in graphic sexual acts, but it's not actually their bodies doing the deed.
So, wait, is this just porn?
If the point of pornography is to titillate, then, no, this is the farthest thing from it. This is a character drama, and the sexuality itself is very much tied to the inner life of those we see on screen. For a film that's overtly graphic, it's emotionally even more revealing, with the acts of physical intimacy absolutely critical to the operation of the film's narrative.
OK, I think I can handle that. So, then, what is the story?
The film begins with a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in an alleyway with the marks of someone who has been badly beaten. Found by a kindly old man (Stellan Skarsgård), he invites the woman into his apartment, where she begins to tell a tale that spans her childhood right up to the events that found her lying in the rain. Along the way we learn of her exploits, her many sexual conquests, and her many challenges with finding happiness along the way. The film is equal parts sombre and comedic, and it's these deft shifts in tone that provide much of the film's sophistication and entertainment.
Wait, in one of those chapters I swear I've seen those hot pants before!
The twin characters at the heart of the story, the nymphomaniac and the virgin, are very much parts of Von Trier's own public persona. For those that have seen his other works, there will be plenty of allusions to his previous films. From the red hot pants of "Breaking The Waves" merged with the train setting of "Europa," Von Trier teases audiences familiar with his works in intriguing ways. When a young child approaches a balcony, it's impossible for those who've seen the shocking introduction to "Antichrist" to not immediately hearken back to it. Unlike any other film he's made, Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" is very much a tortured love letter to his own oeuvres.
I hear it's, like, ten hours long.
Well, no. The theatrical release is actually a non-director's cut -- for the first time, Von Trier has allowed his producers to perform their own cut so that a wider audience can experience the film. The reason? His original cut stands at five-and-a-half hours long, clearly far too long for mainstream cinema-goers to stomach. Instead, the distributors have cut out a solid hour of the film, and presented it as two parts. Volume I can possibly be seen as the lighter of the two, with the first five chapters in the story of Joe providing quite a few shifts in tone. The second part contains three more chapters, and really makes little sense without having seen the preceding sections.
So should I see them all at once?
Yes, ideally. Some theatres (such as the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto) are wisely screening both films at the same venue, meaning you can watch one volume, take an emotional and physical break for a few minutes, and then delve right into part two.
So what was cut out?
At the moment we don't fully know. The longer version of Volume I screened Berlin, and there are rumours that the longer Volume II will play Cannes. From reactions to the screening in Germany, it seems the longer cut is an extension of existing scenes, with added dialogue and a lot more overt sexuality. It does sound like the longer cut may be worth it for a second viewing, but that the producers have done an excellent job in constructing the smaller, slightly more audience-friendly version.
You haven't told me if it's good or not!
I believe every Von Trier film, success or no, is a film worth seeing. This film may not rival his best, but it's an intriguing film from a master filmmaker. With echoes to his earlier works, an extremely dark sense of humour, and a surprisingly endearing look at his tortured characters, this is most definitely a film worth seeing for those willing to brave the subject matter. Coupled with beautiful photography and fantastic performances by an ensemble cast that includes Willem Dafoe, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater and Udo Kier, "Nymphomaniac" is one of this year's most provocative, most exceptional films.
"Nymphomaniac" opens in theatres on March 21.