Naked truths: newcomer Stacy Martin and Shia LaBeouf in Nymphomaniac.
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Oops! I did it again: Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac

The sexual exploits of Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin, are depicted without modesty - but the film stops short of being pornographic, tempered as it is by comedy, provocation and grim detail.

Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II (18)
dir: Lars von Trier

Most of us have experienced at least one catastrophic “Did I say that aloud?” moment but we are all Kofi Annan compared to Lars von Trier. Though he has been making films – and waves – for 30 years, he has scarcely been heard in public since the press conference for Melancholia at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. There, he greeted a question about his heritage with an answer that began, “I thought I was a Jew for a long time …” before proceeding to a revelation (“I understand Hitler”) and ending with the announcement: “OK, I am a Nazi!”

The organisers declared him persona non grata (he was still proudly wearing that slogan on a T-shirt at the Berlin Film Festival this month). Though he made an apology, he quickly retracted it. “I think that anything can be said,” he has insisted. His lack of an internal censor and his attraction to the taboo are among the characteristics that make him a bracing director, so we shouldn’t be surprised if these slosh over the sides of the films like hot tea spilling from cup to saucer.

The idea of an artist who puts all his scalding material into his art, the better to lead a more harmonious existence, is a comforting one but it doesn’t apply to von Trier, who has struggled most of his life with depression. That subject was broached directly in Melancholia, in which a woman’s despair finds its mirror image in the end of the world. Yet the most potent streak of autobiography can be found in his 1998 film The Idiots, the second and strongest Dogme 95 production. That manifesto, drawn up by von Trier and his fellow Danish film-maker Thomas Vinterberg, included ten purifying decrees such as: “The camera must be hand-held” and “Shooting must be done on location”; it made wondrous sense when applied to The Idiots, in which the same quest for honesty drives the characters. They are middle-class people who have devoted their lives to feigning mental disabilities in public. They are a glorious embarrassment.

Self-portraiture continues in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which recounts the lifelong carnal habits of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg; a younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin). She is found by the scholarly Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) lying battered and bloody in the street; he takes her home, where she unpicks for him her grim sexual history, from competing with a friend to see which of them can have the most sex with strangers on a single train journey to presenting herself to a professional sadist (Jamie Bell) who tells her to tie back her hair “in case it becomes necessary to hit you in the face”. The film’s explicitness approaches the pornographic – there are no holes barred – but titillation is precluded by the comic screenplay and a tone of clinical coldness. At times, it has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation, only with montages of genitalia in place of Venn diagrams and flow charts.

No film called Nymphomaniac will struggle to find an audience but viewers should remember the example of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Marketed as erotic, it transpired splendidly to be a three-hour comedy about coitus interruptus. Von Trier references Kubrick’s film in his use of Shostakovich, one of two opposing musical presences in Nymphomaniac – the other being the German industrial metal band Rammstein. This is a divided movie, torn also between its two authorial voices. For every scandalous confession by Joe, there’s a jaunty or bathetic footnote from Seligman. When she makes a tally of the number of thrusts visited on her orifices by her first lover, Seligman is ecstatic: “Those are Fibonacci numbers!” An explanation of her cruising tactics gets a professorial response: “There’s a very clear parallel to fishing in the stream,” he says merrily. It’s rather like leafing through Story of O to find that a few pages from the Encyclopaedia Britannica have strayed in.

The film is also cleaved in half in a literal sense. It is being released in two “volumes” of around two hours each, though there is no question that they need to be seen as a complete work: in for a penis, in for a pound. Admirers of von Trier are accustomed to taking the rough with the smooth and an episodic structure makes Nymphomaniac even more variable than usual. If it feels disruptive that he has included such an obvious allusion to the Cannes debacle (Seligman says, “Each time a word becomes prohibited, you remove a founding block of democracy”), there is at least a reminder of how he got himself into that mess, when Joe prefaces her sexual encounter with two black African men by saying: “I call a spade a spade.” This tendency for empty provocation, seen also in the disastrous final scene, may be the only thing separating von Trier from greatness.

However, for every moment of flippancy, there is something correspondingly intense and full-blooded: a wronged and hysterical wife (Uma Thurman) showing her children around Joe’s apartment, where their father has been spending most of his time, or the eruption of panic when Joe realises that she cannot feel anything during sex. Her explanation for her nymphomania has been that her needs are intensely heightened: “I demand more vivid sunsets,” is how she puts it. To be outraged, humiliated, affronted or even assaulted is preferable to feeling numb. Whether in film or sitting in front of unforgiving microphones, von Trier has been preaching this gospel of mischief and manic depression for his entire career.
 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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