He’s a bit of an enigma, Lars Von Trier. In the past, he’s delivered some truly remarkable work – The Idiots and Dancer In The Dark are both impressive films and there’s also his slightly unhinged TV series The Kingdom to consider. But since the hideously misogynistic mess that was Antichrist, he seems intent on embarking on a journey further and further up his own rectum and sadly, Nymphomaniac Parts 1 and 2 only compounds the situation. Which is not to say that it’s totally without merit.
Leaving aside the tabloid-baiting title, this is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), discovered lying unconscious in an alley one evening by the reclusive Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) and taken back to his grubby flat to recover. Once there, she begins to relate the story of her life and the various events that turned her into the unfortunate sex-obsessed creature that she is. The tale is presented as a series of titled chapters and the fact that Von Trier saw it necessary to spin the story over the course of two full-length films only adds to the inherent pretension at work here. The ‘chapters’ range from the interesting, to the unlikely to the downright risible. (A sequence where an aggrieved mother brings her three children to witness her husband’s infidelity with Joe, frankly beggars belief). There’s also a sado-mashochistic storyline, where Joe voluntarily puts herself under the brutal ministrations of ‘K’ (Jamie Bell) that is frankly very hard to watch and simply enforces the notion that, despite protestations to the contrary, Von Trier really doesn’t like women very much.
Skarsgaard is terrific in his role and Gainsbourg, when called upon to actually act, isn’t that bad either. But there are inconsistencies that serve to bring the overall rating down. Joe’s younger self is played by a succession of actresses who look nothing like Gainsbourg; Shia Le Boeuf sports an English accent that makes Dick Van Dyke sound authentic; and Willem Dafoe wanders in towards the end to personify the least convincing moneylender you’ve ever seen. Von Trier’s attempts to build in some deeper meaning to it all really don’t come off. Meditations on the Fionabacci sequence and Bach’s approach to composing music, when applied to the rather more mundane subject of sexual intercourse, simply don’t wash and there remains the overriding conviction that Von Trier could have made one decent movie rather than two really patchy ones.
It’s a shame, because aside from his recent efforts (and his appallingly ill-judged joke about being a Nazi, a stunt that got him banned from a major film festival) there remains the conviction that there really is a talent in this man and one can only hope that he gets his mojo back soon. Meanwhile, this just isn’t good enough.