Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, recounts her erotic and traumatic experiences to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the stranger who gave her shelter in his modest rooms after finding her in a back alley following a beating.
Review by Louise Keller:
Sex is thrust with intellectual themes as Lars Von Trier defers to religion, music and literature in his controversial, provocative, sexually explicit and terminally long film, Nymphomaniac. Much of the film relies on its shock value with graphically depicted sex acts and a parade of erect (and limp) penises and female genitalia as von Trier's 4 hour sex-athon raises philosophical questions around immoral behaviour. The distance between pornography and art has dwindled. The exploration includes a lust-inspired addiction, a lost orgasm and the mathematical proposition that love is the secret ingredient to sex, suggesting love is nothing but the sum of lust and jealousy. The film is all at once fascinating and stimulating, while simultaneously being tedious and pretentious.
Divided into two parts of around two hours each, the film begins with a series of intriguing images and sounds before revealing a battered woman lying in an alleyway. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) depicts herself as being a bad human being, but Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), the man who finds her and takes her home for a cup of milky tea wants to understand - and hear her story. The dynamic and the dichotomy between these two central characters form the pulse of the film: she yearns for sex; he is ambivalent to it.
Thus begins the first of eight sections in flashback, starting with Joe's preoccupation with her genitals from the tender age of 2. Fly-fishing is used as an allegory for the progression of Joe's sexual adventures, beginning from her loss of virginity aged 15 and finding unlimited partners in a feeding frenzy prowling along a train corridor. Displaying plenty of flesh, Shia Le Boeuf plays Jerôme, the boy who is good with his hands and who reappears at different times of the tale. In her first screen role, Stacy Martin is saucy and pert as the young Joe, showing no qualms to flaunt her body in accordance with the sex-addicted character's desires. Gainsbough has never shied away from nudity or controversy and here she drowns in angst as she delivers her confessional in monotonic fashion.
Echoing Von Trier's notorious 1997 Breaking The Waves, in which his protagonist was encouraged to take a string of lovers, Jerôme (now the father of Joe's child) suggests he needs help from other studs as his 'tiger' searches for her lost orgasm. Watch out for Uma Thurman as the vindictive cuckolded wife who insists her three young children inspect 'the whoring bed'. It's a memorable performance in a scene punctuated with irony and black humour. The scene involving two African men with erect penises in a drab hotel room as a three-some gets underway will raise eyebrows; the way von Trier shoots the scene, framed by the aroused black penises is indeed sensational. Another sequence of note involves Jamie Bell as the sadomasochist with strict rules and no safe word.
Seligman's interaction as Joe recounts her sexual depravity forms a structure by which all the issues are debated. He plays the devil's advocate and a provocative one at that - right until the final scene. This is a film that is guaranteed to prompt discussion and outrage. It is both offensive and fascinating. Some of the sensational images of genitalia and in-your-face sexual acts may not be a turn-on, but they are impossible to erase. The five and a half our version of the film with additional close ups of genitalia is yet to come.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
You can't ignore Lars von Trier as a filmmaker, but he is a wanker, or as he told me during an interview in Cannes, "a masturbator of the silver screen" - and masturbation is one of the more moderate sexual activities in Nymphomaniac, as we would expect.
The film is released in 2 volumes and screened together, the first running at 1h 50m and the second at 2 hours. It is further broken down into chapters, with the characters christening the chapters themselves, using items found in the sparse room where the nymphomaniac of the title (Charlote Gainsbourg) tells her long and complicated story in a flashback confessional, rather like Salieri does to a young pastor in Milos Forman's Amadeus (1984). In this case, the listener is a patient and educated loner, an atheist of Jewish origin, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who also acts as the interpreter of her story, a psychologist, a literary Mr Fixit and finally a sexual and moral hypocrite.
Nymphomaniac needs our fortitude, both physical, but tellingly, internal. An oft-cynical, oft-sensationalist Lars von Trier piles farce upon philosophy, humour upon pain and sex upon sex as he finds opportunities to debate everything from religion to feminism, loyalty - and that blinding force, love. Sex is at the centre, though, sexual addiction that is, and its manifestation from Joe's childhood through a long adolescence (Stacy Martin) into maturity.
The farce comes in a couple of scenes during which only politeness prevents us from laughing out loud: one involves Uma Thurman as Mrs H, the wife of Mr H who has just walked out on her, to be with Joe. Mrs H turns up with their three young boys like the abandoned wife from hell in a scene that is clearly intended to be hilarious, in a black sort of way.
The other is black by skin colour and involves two brothers who argue in their own (unsubtitled) African language over in what order they will do what with Joe as their willing sex object; the choice of camera shots includes profiles of penises pending action as if in a duel. The lead-up to this scene is one of the regrettable failures of the screenplay, which tends to be unconvincing. Not much of it is logical or naturalistic, but it does maintain interest - or at least curiosity.
There are some nifty devices in the film, including on screen graphics and the self awareness of the characters when the film takes a lurch into an unexpected scene. These keep the tone lighter than it would otherwise be, with several harrowing scenes of Joe being methodically beaten, whipped and spanked hard enough to draw blood. Oh, and the sex ...
Genitals feature boldly, sometimes with a comedic undertone, often not. But the graphic nature of the sex in repeated doses plays into the film's dramatic core: the filmmaker is sincere in his exploration of the condition, and he gives Seligman and Joe an interesting line of argument that equates the isolation of the nymphomaniac with the isolation of the latent paedophile. That's just one of the controversial gems of wisdom to be found in Nymphomaniac, whose themes (especially of guilt and sex and redemption) reminds me somewhat of Von Trier's breakout film, Breaking the Waves (1996).
As Joe says, sex is central to our lives, our beings, our humanity. And we are forever confused and confounded by its juxtaposition to love. This film will not resolve that confusion, but in its long winded way, it tries.
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CAST: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Ronja Rissman, Maja Arsovic, Sofie Kasten, Ananya Berg,
PRODUCER: Louise Vesth
DIRECTOR: Lars von Trier
SCRIPT: Lars von Trier
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Manuel Alberto Claro
EDITOR: Molly Malene Stensgaard
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Simone Grau
RUNNING TIME: 240 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 27, 2014