Here's the conundrum that the second half of Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac asks you to solve: how can a film that is so openly manipulative of its viewers - in keeping with the director's playfully provocative oeuvre - come across as a nakedly personal, heartfelt plea for understanding, compassion and love? There is no innocence possible, or even desirable, in Mr. von Trier's world; yet he is constantly goading and taunting the viewer into trying to recapture that innocence so he can best come up and gleefully, yet contritely, trample it.

     None of this is even vaguely surprising for those who've been following his career and, in fact, Nymphomaniac's second half only underscores the film's nature as a combination of aesthetic/artistic autobiography and "recap" of previous episodes. Its structure as a series of sketches told by a self-described "evil person" (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to a self-appointed "father confessor" (Stellan Skarsgård) suggests the director is repenting and yearning for some sort of forgiveness from his audience.

     Yet, once this second part of the erotic adventures/Bildungsroman of titular heroine Joe gains speed, it becomes very obvious how pointless and redundant the four-hour length of the project (in this truncated, two-episode form) is. After the first half had laid out nicely the premise and development, whatever happens in the second seems to merely be another set of episodes that bring nothing of relevance, with the law of diminishing returns hard at work; you end up feeling as if Mr. von Trier is hammering home a point that had been well and truly made before at shorter length. The few guest slots left over for this second half (Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr) are basically glorified cameos that add little or nothing to an enterprise that grows bizarrely more cynical and nihilist the further it advances - until the "grandfinale" gives away the director's nature as an agent provocateur, any sort of narrative credibility taking a backseat to his need to make a point, or, indeed, to make a splash. Admittedly, if the order of the episodes had been reversed or switched, whatever you saw first would still come to seem better; the issue here is not that one half is better, only that one would have been more than enough and two stretches the material to breaking point.

     Still, one thing remains tantalizing: Mr. von Trier is never as affecting a director as when he is cutting it close to his own bone, and the personal nature of Nymphomaniac is such that, even under the general malaise brought on by his manipulations, there is a sense of a director exposing himself as perhaps never before.

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia Labeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth
Director: Lars von Trier, with Anders Refn
Screenwriter: Mr. von Trier
Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro  (colour, widescreen)
Designer: Simone Grau Roney
Costumes: Manon Rasmussen
Editor: Molly Malene Stensgaard
Producer: Louise Vesth (Zentropa Entertainments 31 in co-production with Zentropa International Köln, Slot Machine Productions, Zentropa International France, Caviar Films, Zenbelgië, Zentropa International Sweden, ARTE France Cinéma, Film i Väst and Groupe Grand Accord / ARTE G. E. I. E.)
Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium/Sweden, 2013, 124 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Medeia Monumental 3, Lisbon, January 21st 2014

Nymphomaniac Official Trailer from Zentropa on Vimeo.


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