(The following review was originally published in March 2014)
Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac was, in some markets, distributed in two parts (Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Nymphomaniac: Volume II) and two versions (one lasting 4 hours in total, one in 5.5 hours in total). The version reviewed here is the 4-hour International theatrical version.
Never one to dodge an opportunity to stir the collective pot held by sensitive cinemagoers, Lars von Trier’s films have long polarised audiences. Whether it be the cinematic “rule-breaking” experiment of The Idiots, the Björk-starring musical-drama Dancer in the Dark, the stage-set drama of Dogville or the disturbing study of sexuality and evil that is Antichrist, his films are decidedly different, seemingly made without boundaries and almost always certain to provoke, in one way or another. Arguably, his latest film may be his most audacious yet; a 4-hour discussion on sex and all things related, with an impressive ensemble and plenty of real intercourse to boot. So, does von Trier penetrate the mind with his dissection, or is he simply enjoying his power of provocation? As it happens, both.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I opens in a small dark alley. There, lying beaten and unconscious is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), our titular protagonist. Seligman, an intellectual played by Stellan Skarsgård, finds her and takes her to his small apartment. It is here that Joe begins to recount her life as a nymphomaniac. Hers is a shocking, funny, sad, depressing and sometime far-fetched story that serves as the canvas for von Trier’s discussions and opinions. Get ready for a lot to be thrown your way over the next 4 hours. Some of it will arouse your thoughts, some of it just won’t. Either way, you will be talking about it afterwards.
The flashbacks take us back to Joe’s first experiences with her rapidly growing libido. We see her, as a seven-year-old girl, grinding a wet bathroom floor with her best friend. As a teenager, played by newcomer Stacy Martin, Joe asks Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) to take her virginity – he doesn’t say no. It’s the first scene of intercourse that we see. Straightforward and simple, this scene marks a sort of blueprint for the many depictions of intercourse to come.
Joe’s life unfolds in chapters, with breaks taken to regroup with Joe and Seligman as he analyses her sexual experience in all manner of ways. A nymph, biologically speaking, is the immature form of some invertebrates, particularly insects. Seligman amusingly compares Joe’s early nymphomania to this stage of an insect, while relating it to fly-fishing.
Part I is actually quite amusing, with some downright funny moments scattered throughout the weighty themes. Part II takes a much darker turn, focusing on the self-destructive nature that Joe’s life took, leading to her being found in the alley. Her long story takes many different turns. She marries Jerôme. Her father, played by Christian Slater, dies. She becomes involved in criminal activities. She becomes addicted to the S&M activities offered by Jamie Bell’s sadist ‘K’. While Joe’s life is certainly eventful, some of these particular events detract from the overall arc. There are way too many subplots at play here, and they don’t all add to the experience. Joe’s foray as a “debt collector” just does not convince, becoming an obvious ploy for the filmmaker’s final musings, instead of a natural progression of the plot.
Comparisons, analogies and metaphors run rampant in von Trier’s screenplay, creating an ever-expanding bed of thoughts and impressions. Some of these don’t work, coming across as eye-rollingly ludicrous, while others are utterly inspired, forcing you to think that extra bit more about a moment’s subtext. As far as the filmmaker’s power to provoke, it may be at an all-time high here. Nymphomaniac can pack a punch, and not only with its graphic depiction of sexuality. Joe’s discussions with Seligman provide some controversial gems to stir the upstairs organ, as debates unfold regarding sensitive issues such as pedophilia, religion, race and addiction.
Lars von Trier has gathered a fantastic cast. As a young Joe, Stacy Martin embraces the risqué screenplay and puts everything – everything – she has into the part. It’s an impressive performance, matching Gainsbourg’s willingness to do whatever it takes to bring this filmmaker’s writing to the screen. The roles all differ in sizes and importance, but everyone puts in their all. Special mention goes to Uma Thurman, who almost steals the show in a small, yet fantastic, role as a wronged wife.
While Martin and Gainsbourg do their absolute best with their characters, Joe herself isn’t as interesting, or even as layered, as she should be. Apart from the imprisonment she feels due to her overwhelming sexual desire, it’s hard to feel as though you ever really get to know her. In fact, for the most part Joe is downright unlikeable, full of self-pity and self-hatred. It’s understandable that these are the personality traits of the character, but it doesn’t make her any more appealing to be around — especially for four hours.
It’s no secret that this isn’t the type of film that will appeal to most audiences. Its graphic sex withstanding, von Trier goes for some easy provocations, sometimes coming across as juvenile. The ending, in particular, is needlessly tacked on; a final and unnecessary poke from Lars. Still, it could be argued that the filmmaker has delivered his opus here. Nymphomaniac will see his fans embrace his ideas and directorial style, while others may be more disgusted.
It’s hard to find a point to Nymphomaniac; maybe there isn’t one, or there are many. As a giant essay on one of our natural tendencies, the film is a mixed bag. It’s self-indulgent and crass, yet inspired and admirably provocative. At the very least, Nymphomaniac will have you talking, and that’s way more than you get from most cinematic outings these days.