Nymphomaniac (2014)

Final Rating: 8.2/10

Volume I: 8.0/10
Volume II: 8.4/10

Lars Von Trier is either your friend or your enemy. You can either put up with his indulgences or you can find disgust in his controversies, his passions and his focuses. This is the man that has made the bleakest musical I have ever seen (Not Sweeney Todd, but rather Dancer In The Dark), an incredibly bittersweet end of everything as we know it (Melancholia), and whatever in God’s name Antichrist was (Antichrist; Don’t get me wrong, I am a big advocate of that film). He fixates on what affects humans the most, which usually dives deep into the pits of what is the most revolting experiences we can realistically have (for the most part). He also works through loose trilogies of which are linked mostly by concept, and his final trilogy known as the Depression Trilogy has been concluded with a film that feels like it is concluding Von Trier’s filmography as a whole: The sickly humanistic epic Nymphomaniac.

Nymphomaniac may have drawn much interest because of its non-simulated sex scenes and the fact that this two part film stretches between four and five hours, but do not be mistaken. If any of Von Trier’s films should not be attached to any form of gimmick, it is, oddly enough, this film. It is, even, considerably easier to watch in comparison to many of his other films. If anything, this is thanks to the massive time length. We finally get a chance to look at each and every miniscule detail to these grotesque stories, and we do so with the help of two narrators: The former sex addict Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the intelligent recluse, that takes her in after a brutal beating, named Seligman (played by Stellan Skarsgård). Joe recounts not just her experiences as a nymphomaniac but her entire process of maturing from a girl into a woman, and she is to the point with each and every detail. She is proud of the way she has grown up as she claims her womanhood with such blunt yet honest integrity. Seligman can only wrap his head around any of this with vast categories of knowledge, ranging from mathematics (the Fibonacci Sequence), religion (different sects of European christianity) and so forth. We get a literal retelling of Joe’s life, and a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the human brain. Like everything in the movie, however, this is done both brilliantly well and very questionably.

The acting also ranges from superb to a bit silly. We have our two “hosts” for the evening, both of whom are compelling despite being subtle (enormity isn’t always the right direction), and the odd great performance including Stacy Martin’s star turning performance as a younger Joe, Jamie Bell as a creepy sadomasochist, and even Uma Thurman who briefly appears as a distraught mother that steals the chapter she is featured in. Christian Slater as Joe’s father is not too shabby, and actually delivers a heart breaking performance in a scene heading towards the halfway point in the film. Then you have a performance like Shia LaBeouf’s that is both over the top and expressionless at the same time. His accent is extreme and his face is still. Willem DaFoe appears and then disappears; A performance you can barely even talk about because it barely exists (think Harrison Ford in Apocalypse Now or George Clooney in The Thin Red Line). His return to a Lars Von Trier film seems to be just a reminder of Von Trier’s past and that’s about it.

With this cast, of whom ends up being interesting despite the outcome, we go through eight chapters of Joe’s life. We see her as a child discovering sexual arousal innocently. We see her as a young teen exploring this side of her carelessly. We see her age more and more with different experiences that shift along with her mentality and her physical capabilities. She hits burdens that never really get resolved, rather, she plows through these burdens to keep her addiction alive. Seligman’s perplexed reactions are the same as ours, and we are only invested the entire time. It is definitely a slower film in Von Trier’s work, but it is far from his least interesting.

In the end, this adventure into the darkest corridors of Joe’s psyche and it is a pleasant adventure. It is highly affecting, but it is also very rewarding. We learn more about Joe, about promiscuity and ourselves. The dialogue may be puzzling or it may be clever. The acting may be spot on or it may be a bit off. The metaphors may be enlightening, or, as Joe mentions, bad “digressions”. In the end, Nymphomaniac feels humanistic, and that is why its flaws are forgivable. The sex isn’t stylized despite being conducted by pornographic actors. The situations are very out there but they sadly do seem very possible. Everything that is questionable can still be linked to the awkwardness of reality. Isn’t the bizarreness of life why many of us cling to addictions in the first place? Nymphomaniac may seem like a daunting task to fulfill, but it is ironically far easier to take on than imaginable. It isn’t effortless, but it is a film worth watching for this very reason alone: You will watch a story for five hours only to have the entirety of the film change into a completely different beast within the last two minutes. That kind of power alone is the remarkable kind of dictation of human nature that makes Lars Von Trier either your favorite cynic or an absolute monster (and is he ever great at being both).

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.