I don’t consider myself a fan of Lars von Trier, but I do admire his ambition, tendency to take risks and willingness to attempt something a little different to what we’re used to seeing. His latest writer/director effort, Nymphomaniac, is a 4-hour epic split into two parts, contains a whole load of big Hollywood names, and features highly explicit sex scenes. I didn’t think I’d like it, but to my own amazement, I did.
The film starts off when an injured middle-aged woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is found in an alley by a middle-aged man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). At Joe’s request, Seligman takes her home to attend to her wounds, and soon after she begins telling him her adventurous life story as a nymphomaniac, someone addicted to sex. In Volume I, the young Joe is played mostly by rail-thin Franco-English actress Stacy Martin, while the majority of Volume II reverts back to the older Gainsbrough.
The total length of the two parts is a whopping 241 minutes (with an additional 28 minutes in the uncut version I didn’t see). Even with an intermission, the film is a challenge for any moviegoer.
But it wasn’t as much of a challenge as I anticipated, because for the most part, Nymphomaniac is entertaining (or at least extremely fascinating) cinema; and no, it’s not because of the explicit sex scenes. First of all, you would be mistaken to catch this film if you’re only interested in the sex. if you are, then I’d recommend watching porn instead, because to be honest, the cut version I watched is not that bad. There are scenes that show what appear to be real sex acts featuring real genitalia, but as we’ve been told, they don’t belong to the actors you see on screen. It’s either done by prosthetics or porn actors and then digitally inserted (get that joke?) through movie magic. Some scenes are titillating, many others are not, and several even verge on gross. In any case, there are certainly plenty of other contemporary movies that are equal or worse in terms of explicitness, with the brilliant Blue is the Warmest Color being a recent candidate that springs to mind.
Instead, watch Nymphomaniac because it’s a very interesting movie with great characters played by a wonderful cast. Joe is a brilliant creation, someone born with a natural appetite for all things sexual. While she continuously questions the morality of her behaviour, she is not ashamed of it. For those who have seen Shame, Joe provides a thought-provoking contrast to Michael Fassbender’s character. Seligman, on the other hand, provides perfect balance to Joe through his asexuality, his wide knowledge of the world, and his ability to link them to Joe’s experiences. There’s an air of surrealism that feels just right when the two of them talk, and I couldn’t help but be captivated by their every word.
Stacy Martin, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard take up the majority of the screen time, but there are also plenty of other big names such as Shia LeBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe. Shia LeBeouf has fallen off the wagon as of late, but he thankfully kept his douchebagginess to a minimum in this film. It’s just a shame he can’t do a proper British accent and can’t help but look annoying. On the other hand, the standout for me is clearly Uma Thurman, who steals the show with a farcical sequence as a scorned wife.
And that leads me into the thing that surprised me most about Nymphomaniac — it’s actually really really funny. My kind of black comedy all the way. The Uma Thurman sequence is genuinely laugh-out-loud stuff, and there are plenty of others littered throughout the film, including how Joe got her first job and how she subsequently performed her duties. The train competition scenes were also brilliantly executed — awkward and painful, but amusing and insightful at the same time.
Not everything in the film worked though, and there were portions, especially in Volume II, where I found it difficult to sustain my attention. It might be because I had already sat through three hours, but it might also be because the film was starting to lose its edge. The transition from the young Joe to the old Joe was also jarring because of the sudden switch between actresses. Part of the problem is because Charlotte Gainsbourg looks really young for her age and looks nothing like Stacy Martin other than their thin figures, and another part of the problem is that Shia LaBeouf’s character doesn’t age until the end. I’m sure there could have been a better way.
Anyway, if you treat Nymphomaniac as two separate films, as some have done, it’s likely you’ll prefer one Volume over the other. Personally, I thought Volume I was much more enjoyable. It’s lighter, funnier and more playful, whereas Volume II becomes much serious and tragic as Joe’s adventures get darker and darker in her desire to feel something. I also don’t get S&M at all, so maybe that played a factor too.
On the whole, I came away surprised by how much I enjoyed Nymphomaniac because I only watched it to see what all the fuss was about. Instead, I not only liked it, I liked it for reasons I had not expected. It might very well be my favourite Lars von Trier film.
3.75 stars out of 5