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If there’s anything about Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 that’s shocking, it’s not the graphic, non-simulated intercourse nor the detailed story of a sex addict who we first meet nearly beaten to death and left in the street. It’s how goofy the movie is. It’s all the metaphorical parallels between nymphomania and fly fishing and all the mathematical elements, especially including those that take literal form with numbers on screen. I read nothing about the film going in and had presumed it would be darker, even depressing. Maybe some black humor as only the maniacal mind of von Trier would devise, but nothing as funny as this is. It’s more The Boss of It All than any of his other recent movies.
When I mentioned the tone to someone who is only slightly familiar with von Trier’s work, she expressed surprise, admitting that she thought all of his movies were depressing. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’ve actually never found him to be depressing at all. Antichrist and Melancholia were definitely the products of someone who was experiencing a bout with depression, and Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark surely evoke a lot of tears at their ends, but they’re not depressing. Serious is more like it, though there’s also something happy in the silly final shot of the former.
Anyway, the conversation and the movie inspired me to look for happy moments in von Trier’s oeuvre, where clips are available at least. Most are, understandably, located in the first halves of his features, before the usual misery and drama and chaos reign. That makes me wonder if Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is all light in tone because it’s the first half. I haven’t yet seen Nymphomaniac Vol. 2, and maybe it’s the darker side (no spoilers!). For now, let’s just appreciate the following joyful scenes.
Laughing Cabbie in Epidemic
Even though von Trier’s 1987 film involves a plague that will wipe out all of humanity, it’s one of the director’s most thoroughly amusing efforts. That doesn’t mean it’s filled with happy people, of course, so let’s look to the very beginning for an absurd scene in which a taxi driver explodes into uncontrollable laughter when he attempts to give the main character (played by von Trier) a ride home but can’t go forward. That’s Michael Simpson as the cabbie. Don’t worry about the lack of English subtitles. You’ll still get it fine.
Laughing Bride in Melancholia
I was going to take this list down a chronological path, but I think it better to put the Epidemic and Melancholia scenes back to back, because this early bit from von Trier’s 2011 disaster drama reminded me of the one above. We’ve got another car, some more backing up and driving trouble in general and you’ve got a very amused character. Newly wedded Justine (Kirsten Dunst) isn’t having a laughing fit, but she has the giggles, and it’s one of the rare moments in the film where she seems to be genuinely having a good time.
Bleeding Bride in Breaking the Waves
I’d love to share the entirety of the wedding sequence from von Trier’s 1996 breakout, especially because you’ve got some “Arna Fari,” which always brings joy, you’ve got the bit with Jan’s oil rig buddy challenging the old church elder to a drinking match (the only time you’ll see a guy win at such a challenge with only a glass of water) and there’s the general ecstasy expressed by Bess (Emily Watson) when Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) arrives for the ceremony. Oh, and before then you’ve got the break of the fourth wall when she shows us her happiness at being permitted to marry an outsider. But I’ve decided to focus on Bess’s loss of virginity, because sex winds up being an obsession and ultimately her downfall. She’s also continually happy all the way through this clip, as it ends before Jan has to head back to the rig and thereby cause Bess enormous heartache.
“In the Musicals” in Dancer in the Dark
Von Trier’s brilliant musical to end all musicals weaves probably his most gut-wrenching yarn, but for Selma (Bjork) it’s never too upsetting so long as she has her delusions. In this number, she taps around, duets with the great Joel Grey and admittedly is having a ball in spite of being arrested and then tried for murder. The movies and the songs are her escape, they make her smile no matter what problems she faces in the real world, even death.
The Perfect Human – Bombay in The Five Obstructions
This section of von Trier’s assignment to Jorgen Leth is so very cruel, having him act out his classic film, The Perfect Human, in front of poor Indians. Especially the parts where he’s eating fine food and drinking fine wine as the people of Bombay look upon this display of elegance that likely cost more than they’d ever know. But those people don’t mind. They’re happy to be on camera, happy to meet Leth and the crew, happily ignorant of the joke on them. I guess there’s something depressing about that, but should we be upset if they’re not?
Grace’s Good Intentions in Manderlay
Can you be happily naive? Of course, it’s like being happily stupid, but Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) isn’t stupid for seeing injustice upon her arrival of Manderlay plantation and finding that people are still being enslaved more than a half-century since the 13th Amendment was passed. She might be foolish for thinking she could be of help, though. In this scene as she talks to her father (Willem Dafoe), she’s still elated with her own humanitarian thoughts and will of good intentions, at least.
Chaos Reigns in Antichrist
Is the self-disemboweling fox happy? As strange as the whole scene is, I like to think so. He is a chaos loving fox, and chaos reigns. It’s also a much happier time for talking foxes, years before that Ylvis song came along. What does the fox say? He says, “chaos reigns.” Regardless, the scene made many of us in the audience happily amused during what’s otherwise von Trier’s most traumatizing work of all.