Clocking in at a combined four-plus hours, Lars von Trier's two-volume Nymphomaniac is a long, dark journey into one woman's sexual addiction, though the bleak undertones that carry throughout are liberally peppered with jaw-dropping humor. One particularly memorable dose comes courtesy of Uma Thurman, who provides gallows humor as the spurned Mrs. H in a scene-stealing turn that dishes an abundance of squirm-inducing cackles.
Well ahead of its release last week at Film Society, various Nymphomaniac trailers and clips made their rounds online. One teaser included Thurman, playing a rejected wife who confronts her estranged husband at the home of Joe, the sex addict at the center of both Nymphomaniac movies. “Uma Thurman Loses Her Shit” was one attention-blazing headline of a blog post showing Thurman's character throwing a tizzy fit as her children look on.
“It was a real treat for me. It's the only thing I've done since I decided to have a baby, who is now 18 months old,” said Thurman in New York, chatting about her much-praised role. “It's very complicated. I don't know if she's a [complex] woman or if she's just going through a very complicated moment in her life. I would probably say the latter is true.”
Though her part is minimal in proportion to the epic Nymphomaniac, Thurman's performance has had an outsized reaction, with some comparing the role to Elizabeth Taylor's in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—a role Thurman said is one of “her favorites” and would like to tackle one day. Thurman said that she prepared to take on Mrs. H as if it were a stage performance, knowing von Trier had a reputation for long takes. Throughout the rant that takes place in the confines of an apartment, Mrs H goes ballistic, feigning semi-civility while delivering verbal daggers, and at one point asking his husband's mistress, “Where is the whoring bed?” so she can show her visibly stunned offspring “daddy's favorite place.”
“I was thrilled to discover that Lars von Trier's reputation was true,” said Thurman. “I prepared to do it as if it were a one-act play and it would be largely a monologue. It was lucky I did because he does not shoot in the typical manner. They were long single-bodied takes that were mostly handheld, and he largely shoots in real time… I had the great opportunity you typically only get on stage to play through the emotions she experiences.”
Thurman admitted that going in she wasn't sure how it would all play out. The actress read the full script ahead of production, wondering how von Trier would weed through the twists and complexities and wrap it up for the big screen. “I thought it would be the most bizarre car accident you'd ever see… It's so extreme. The courage he has is out of control.”
Similar to fellow Nymphomaniac cast members Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin, who play the younger and older versions of Joe, the sexually ravenous character at the center of the film, as well as Stellan Skarsgård and others that spoke to press at the Crosby Hotel in Manhattan before Nymphomaniac's theatrical rollout, Thurman takes a protective stance when it comes to von Trier who has provoked a good amount of controversy beyond his films. She lauded him for his filmmaking genius and without being directly asked, rebuked criticisms that his films are demeaning to women.
“People throw stones. Somebody asked me on the phone about Lars saying that people debate whether he's a misogynist. I was like, 'Well, why don't we wonder about all the screenwriters out there who won't even write roles for women and whether they're misogynists?' Why do we ask whether someone like von Trier is, someone who has dedicated his life to having the courage to examine female characters from many angles—good and bad—and not in just a one-dimensional manner? It's kind of mind-boggling.”
Thurman said that the famously depressive von Trier is a “very fragile, sensitive human being who is also profoundly intelligent.” Thurman noted that his personal saving grace appears to be his ample humor, which manages to trump his ever-present maudlin self. “A sense of humor will save your life,” she said. “I'm very moved by him to tell you the truth. I think he has a huge amount of compassion and empathy for his characters. I hope he doesn't suffer as badly as the characters in his stories because he's such a great artist. We don't have many like him.”
Adding a bit of her own perspective on his personality, she said: “I think he has a very strong feminine side. I don't know if he'd want me to say that, but I think he's in touch with all of himself.”
Nymphomaniac will likely only feed into von Trier's bad-boy reputation. Cringe-filled scenes of lust and carnal excess have piqued audience attention, while at the same time taunted self-annointed detractors to bring on another von Trier backlash. Thurman's answer is this is quite simple: just don't see the movie. “Somebody asked me if I thought the far-right conservatives would be outraged by this movie… I just said, 'If there was an outrage that Bert and Ernie were living together on Sesame Street, then this should really be a no-go. Anyone upset about Ernie and Bert living together as roommates—just don't go see this movie.”
“I think this film will be very long-lasting. I think there will be many papers written about it and it will be discussed for a long time to come.”