Review | "Nymphomaniac"

When Lars von Trier announced that his next movie would be a four hour long "sex film" featuring well known actors performing un-simulated sex acts, many wondered if the Danish enfant terrible had finally lost his mind, at long last flying off the deep end in the ultimate act of cinematic provocation. Coming off his controversial remarks while promoting his film, Melancholia, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (which resulted in his being declared persona non grata and banned from the festival), it certainly seemed like a distinct possibility.

As it turns out, Nymphomaniac isn't nearly the most provocative thing von Trier has ever directed (that title belongs to 2009's blistering Antichrist), and it isn't even really about sex, although there is certainly plenty of it (performed, as it turns out, not by the stars, but by stand ins and CGI trickery).

Despite the fact that it is split into two halves for it's theatrical release and distributed as two separate 2 hour films, Volume 1 and Volume 2, it is impossible to consider Nymphomaniac as anything other than one giant film that is in many ways von Trier's magnum opus.

Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin in NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME I, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Christian Geisnaes
Despite frequent accusations of misogyny, Von Trier's films have always been about strong woman. They may go through extraordinary hardships (Dancer in the Dark) or degradation (Dogville), but ultimately it is their strength that defines them. You could even argue that Von Trier is perhaps one of the most vocal feminist voices in cinema today, and if that is the case then Nymphomaniac is his most vociferous statement yet. The Nymphomaniac of the title is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as a young woman), a sex addict whose troubled life has left her unconscious and bleeding in a dark alley. She is rescued and taken in by a kindly bachelor (Stellan Skarsgård), who is more interested in fly fishing and literature than anything sexual. Joe begins to relate her long, sad tale that led her to that alley - how she discovered her sexuality at a young age, how she and her friends created a club in which they slept with a new man every night, and never the same one twice, how her appetites became increasingly insatiable, leading to a modern day Homer's Odyssey of sexual encounters where love was an afterthought and pleasure and power the only real goal.

But something is missing from Joe's wide array of sexual conquests. As one of her closest friends tells her before abandoning their club, "love is the secret ingredient to sex." Joe has never known love, until she meets Jerome (Shia LeBeouf). But even love may not be strong enough to feed her ravenous appetite for sex, even if it leads her down an inevitable path of self destruction.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME II, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo credit: Christian Geisnaes
Nymphomaniac  is certainly edgy and provocative, and is in no way, shape, or form a film for all tastes and sensibilities. It is every bit as graphic as one would expect from a film of its subject matter, showcasing some of the most hardcore sex scenes ever shown in a widely distributed film. Von Trier does not shy away from any explicit details, but for all its themes of sexual liberation, female empowerment, and depictions of real sex, Nymphomaniac is, at its core, a surprisingly conservative film, especially coming from Von Trier. One would be hard pressed to describe the sexuality depicted in the film as arousing or attractive. It's dark, dangerous, and ultimately destructive. Love is nowhere to be found here, and that is really the point. This is not pornography, because unlike porn, Von Trier isn't inviting us to look, he's daring us to look away. He has whittled down humanity to its most base instincts, summing up many of the themes that he has been exploring his entire career. While I am one of the few who still defends Antichrist as a masterpiece (it is, perhaps, the most stunningly realized portrait of a filmmaker's own personal demons ever put to celluloid), I was not a big fan of Melancholia. Nymphomaniac, on the other hand, seems like a continuation of the work began in those most recent works, even paying direct homage to by revisiting some of the scenes and locations from those films. It is as if Von Trier has finally come out of the psychological woods and revisited and refined the ideas explored there with a more clear and rational mind.

We've come a long way from the angry and brutal depiction of female sexuality in Antichrist (which, not coincidentally I think, also starred Gainsbourg as its female protagonist), as Nymphomaniac finds a woman taking control of her own sexuality in a world that only sees her as an object, an idea hammered home by film's shocking final scene. Von Trier seems much calmer here, more focused than he has since his 2004 masterwork, Dogville. He is still a gleeful provocateur - relishing in blending the sacred with the profane, so much so that Nymphomaniac often takes on an air of ecclesiastical spirituality. But also feels much less like provocation for provocation's sake. It is brash, bold, erotic, messy, mesmerizing, and ultimately cathartic; a kind of neo-feminist allegory that synthesizes sex, philosophy, religion, and politics as only Von Trier could do it. The Fibonacci Sequence has never been so riveting.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

NYMPHOMANIAC | Directed by Lars von Trier | Stars Charlotte Gainsboroug, Shia LeBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Stacie Martin, Christian Slater | Not rated | Now playing in select cities. Opens today at the a/perture cinema in Winston-Salem.


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