Review: ‘Nymphomaniac’ films empty, phony

San Francisco ChronicleApril 4, 2014 

  • Nymphomaniac Vol. 2

    D Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard

    Director: Lars von Trier

    Length: 2 hours, 3 minutes

    Rating: Not rated


    Raleigh: Grande

If you’re ever tied to a chair and given a choice to watch either “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1” (opening Friday at Raleigh Grande) or “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2” (opening April 11 at Raleigh Grande), choose Vol. 2 – assuming you can’t throw yourself out a window. It’s a slight improvement over the first, in that the now-mature nymphomaniac is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is a better actress than Stacy Martin, who played the same character, Joe, in her younger incarnation.

This long, long episode chronicles the crisis in young Joe’s life, when she wakes up one morning realizing that she has gone sexually numb. She can’t feel anything down there. So she goes on an odyssey to feel something, which includes daily visits to a guy in a room who straps her to a table and beats her. “I want you to completely relax while I hit you in the face,” he tells her. And she does – kind of like the audience in a Lars von Trier movie.

At one point, Joe, while relating her story to a kindly fellow played by Stellan Skarsgard, stops herself and says, “What kind of person are you? Most men get excited … by my dirty stories.” They do? Really? If “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2” were any less erotic, it would qualify as aversion therapy.

In one scene, two men, speaking a foreign language, get into an argument while having sex with Joe and have to stop and sort things out. Von Trier gives us a shot of Joe sitting on the bed, watching them argue, as their erect penises bob up and down on either sides of the frame. This is, I think, intended as a lighthearted moment.

The “Nymphomaniac” films are an artistic dead-end for Von Trier. He is most certainly feeling something, but he’s short-circuiting his own emotion, rather than digging into it. He’s indulging the vanity of a provocateur’s pose, trying to inflict pain rather than express it, and the worst thing of all is he’s not even being provocative, just ridiculous.

When Gainsbourg lies, beat up in an alley, muttering to herself, “Fill all my holes, please,” the moment is entirely inauthentic, far from the source of inspiration. It’s strange: There are phony movies made every week, but this is in a different category – a phony movie that seems a distortion of something real, a phony movie offered in place of the real movie von Trier could have made, but it would have cost him something. Some blood, some truth, some soul. What we’re left with instead is an empty gesture.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic.

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