Review by-Jarrett Leahy
Lars von Trier is an eccentric Danish auteur filmmaker whose collection of unconventional creations often baffles and frustrates even the most ardent of cinephiles. My first introduction to Lars was his 2009 drama, Antichrist, and I have yet to remove from my memory one of the most erotically grotesque images ever depicted. If you’ve seen the film, you know to what I refer; if you haven’t, I’ll save you the gory details. Von Trier began making feature films in the 1980’s, but it wasn’t until his 1991 foreign drama Europa that he became a recognized name in the international movie scene. Ever the provocateur, he has made films that deal with a bevy of onerous topics that all seem to come back to the inherent flaws and frailties of the human condition, especially our innate sexual desires.
Nymphomaniac expands on those ideas, telling the story of a self-described sex addict as she chronicles her life’s carnal escapades to a man who has recently rescued her from a back-alley gutter after she suffers a severe beating. Clocking in at just over four hours long, von Trier wisely decided to split his sexual opus into two volumes, which I found helped make the overall film much easier to digest. Although, I suspect with how engrossing I found the first volume, I would have had little problem immediately continuing my viewing of Volume 2 if I had had both discs.
Our film’s central character, Joe, is portrayed by two actresses, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin. Gainsbourg plays the older Joe while also narrating the film’s many flashbacks. Gainsbourg, a daring and talented veteran English actress, has appeared in two other von Trier films, Melancholia and Antichrist (she is the one who forever scarred my psyche). Because she is the narrator recounting her story, for much of the first volume of Nymphomaniac, we only see her lying in bed recovering from her injuries, while Martin, who was cast to portray the younger Joe, is asked to perform many of the character’s graphic exploits. Nymphomaniac is Martin’s first film, and what a daring and challenging role to begin one’s career. These two women are put through the wringer in the name of art, and I will tip my hat to their commitment to this extremely demanding character.
Stellan Skarsgard’s portrayal of Seligman, the asexual intellectual, is a foil narrative device used by von Trier to contrast Joe’s salacious tales with more levelheaded and well educated counter perspectives. While Gainsbourg’s character often perceives herself as an evil person whose voracious desires have negatively impacted so many in her wake, Seligman instead sees her constant cravings and insatiable sexual appetite as innate needs unique to her as a human creature. The conversations these two characters share during her story are fascinating, philosophical, provocative, and even a bit pretentious at times. Unfortunately, von Trier’s lazy choice on how to end the film diminishes some of their previous interactions.
After receiving an NC-17 valuation from the MPAA, the studio decided to surrender the rating and release the film unrated. Nymphomaniac is obviously graphic in nature—how graphic, I suppose, depends on each viewer’s personal definition of what is explicit. Perhaps due to my past experiences with von Trier films, I found the sexual acts depicted in Volume 1, while plentiful, to be less vulgar than initially anticipated. Volume 2, however, offers much more lewd subject matter including a storyline involving S&M, and von Trier does not hold back in the visuals shown.
There is little doubt that Nymphomaniac is a divisive creation that elicits strong and varied reactions. Overall, I found Volume 1 a far more engrossing and compelling film, offering unusually keen and abstract conversations between Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, along with surprisingly competent performances from both Christian Slater and Shia LaBeouf. Volume 2 struggles slightly with a narrative that begins to wander, straying into more puzzling and esoteric subject matter while also suffering from an ending that I found ineffectively anticlimactic. As a whole, Nymphomaniac is not for those with more modest tastes but is worth the risk for film fans interested in more experimental cinema.-JL