Nymphomaniac: Lars Von Trier's Ultimate Joke

Lars Von Trier's epic four-hour examination of the life of a nymphomaniac is everything you expect a Von Trier film to be – pretentious, over-wrought, juvenile, sublime, ridiculous, explicit and provocative. What's most unexpected about Nymphomaniac is how much of it is played for laughs. Von Trier has always been a schoolyard prankster, trading in explicit visuals or manipulative audience-torture in a way that felt like he was laughing at his audiences but here is one of the few times his sarcastic humour has been placed front and centre.
Nymphomaniac is the first Von Trier film where I felt he openly let the audience in on the joke – or at least most of the jokes. The framing structure of Charlotte Gainsbourg telling Stellan Skarsgard the story of her life allows Von Trier ample opportunity to cut into the action with various comedic asides. Often Skarsgard's disbelieving reactions play as bizarrely old-fashioned meta-commentaries on the story – satirical jabs at the act of critical interpretation maybe? Other times these asides allow Von Trier to insert odd, uncharacteristic Family Guy style cut-away jokes. A bizarre “schooling” gag feels like the spirit of Seth MacFarlane suddenly possessed Von Trier. The film's best scene, the Mrs H chapter in the first volume, featuring a magnificent Uma Thurman, is almost completely comedic, albeit of a dry and caustic kind. This particular set-piece successfully negotiates a thrillingly precise and difficult tonal tightrope that is incredibly exciting to witness.
But in true Von Trier style, not all the jokes in Nymphomaniac are openly shared with the audience. It wouldn't be a real Lars Von Trier film if he wasn't laughing at his audience. A striking example of this occurring early in Volume 2 is a bizarre fake out set-piece involving a young child and an explicit reference to the opening scenes of Antichrist. The joke here being that he doesn't kill the kid. Get it? Hilarious... Another scene where he has Gainsbourg offer an impassioned monologue pleading empathy for the tragedy of paedophiles who don't act on their natural passions firmly places Von Trier in classic provocateur mode.
One of the big structural jokes of Nymphomaniac comes in it's arduous length. In an interview conducted while he was making the film Von Trier stated that it would be “extremely long, extremely boring and extremely philosophical”, presumably in an effort to sarcastically buck the expectations of viewers expecting an exciting hardcore pornographic film. Even in the four hour version, many scenes are distended well beyond their standard function especially in the more tortuously conventional second volume. Here Von Trier trades in a form of conspicuous monotony – the joke being how pretentiously expanded, yet ultimately meaningless, the experience is.
The fact that a longer – five and a half hour - cut exists seems to work perfectly as the ultimate Von Trier prank even though he supposedly had no hand in generating this shortened version. After sitting through the four hour version it seems an almost veiled threat that a longer version exists. In this shortened version the experience is still thoroughly exhausting.
Nymphomaniac is not short on ideas. Von Trier has used this project to seemingly dump every thought on his mind into one cinematic experience. We get rants on fly fishing, the feminine use of cake forks, parallel parking, the Fibonacci sequence and especially the beautiful significance of Ash trees. The Ash tree story, which is told several times over the course of the film again reveals itself to be another of Von Trier's private jokes. Post the Cannes Nazi debacle Von Trier confessed his fondness for Ash trees to a journalist before immediately following up with, “The problem is it’s also the symbol of a far-right party. And, also, Wagner wrote a lot about the ash. So I need to stay clear of it”. Von Trier's ultimate positioning of this as a central metaphor in Nymphomaniac becomes a subtle jab at those who condemned his “jokes” at Cannes several years ago. Of course he also implants a less subtle jab at those attackers when he gives Skarsgard a monologue explaining the difference between anti-zionism and anti-semitism. It feels like Von Trier is talking right at you in these moments.
It's this formal juxtaposition between the explicit sexual activity and the philosophical ruminations that seems to be the raison d’etre for Nymphomaniac. The conversation between Skarsgard and Gainsbourg is returned to at a relentless regularity. We are constantly having the story re-framed and re-contextualised through Skarsgard's often tangential contentions.
It's as if Von Trier is offering us a privileged insight into the film's thematic territory while also undermining any greater depth in the story whatsoever. The irrelevance of Skarsgard's running commentary is often joked about by Gainsbourg. The point here – interpret this however you want, it probably has nothing to do with the intention of the storyteller. A story is sometimes just a story.
What then, is Von Trier trying to say with Nymphomaniac? It seems like a well calibrated combination of everything and nothing at all. The film is packed with little vignettes portraying his own personal obsessions but every time he seems to be coming up to a grand realisation he just pulls the rug out. He can't help but undercut every serious moment with a sly provocation.
Judging by Von Trier's much professed discomfort with his previous film Melancholia (I believe still his best work), it seems the man is unable to unironically communicate anything without adding a juvenile schoolboy provocation.
Nymphomaniac is certainly his magnum opus in its supremely assured blend of philosophical commentary and low-brow humour but as a comment on humanity, sexuality or feminism the film falls flat. Buried deep within the film is possibly quite a rich examination of the nature of human sexuality. Von Trier may see it as a blessing and a curse – a horrific necessity that we never will overcome. Or does he? Maybe “the moral” of the story is in itself a big joke? Maybe the excess of tangential digressions in the film are a big joke on those who insist in projecting great meaning onto every story?
Certainly the cynical climax of the film is nothing more than yet another “punchline” rendering earlier realisations nihilistically redundant. Nymphomaniac is Lars Von Trier at his most unfiltered. It contains some of his most impressive work while also pandering to his most unpleasant and manipulative traits. It's the closest we'll ever get to a giant parody of art-house film, it's the Flying High of pretentious world cinema.