A truly excellent long movie is a wonderful thing. Some of my favourite films time stretch over more than three hours – Once Upon a Time in America, Lawrence of Arabia, Short Cuts – with the runtimes allowing for extensive character development (much like television). More significantly, long movies have the opportunity to create – and, occasionally, diverge from – a consistent tone.
Nymphomaniac sustains such a tone over the four-plus hours of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin) recounting her sexual history to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) after he rescues her, bruised and bloody, from the street. Unfortunately, that tone never connected with me, with the film’s most resonant moments –a car engulfed in flames to the Talking Heads, insights like “Erotic is about saying yes” – departures from the norm.
The tone is deliberately drab; most scenes are interior shots, white-grey walls illuminated by yellow incandescent lights – fitting, given Seligman’s apartment is similarly plain and we’re never entirely sure of the veracity of Joe’s tales. Emotional engagement – the gutpunch that von Trier is normally so good at delivering – is muted by overt intellectualisation, Seligman analysing Joe’s stories like a stuffy …well, like a film critic.
Then again, to paraphrase Nymphomaniac: perhaps I’ve misunderstood the whole thing.