Film review: Nymphomaniac

Nymphomaniac train scene

Lars von Trier’s two-part, four-hour Nymphomaniac is more affective than the film’s title and marketing suggest and than I was expecting.

The film starts with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding a woman, battered and beaten, in an alleyway by his apartment. Her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and he takes her inside for some tea. She tells Seligman she can tell him what happened to her if he’s really interested, but “I’ll have to tell you the whole story, and it’ll be long.” No kidding.

For the next four hours, Joe takes us and Seligman through the highs and lows (and there are loads of lows) of her life as a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, from her relationship with her icy mother (Connie Nielsen), briefly, to the great love she had for her father (Christian Slater), to the time she discovered her “cunt,” to losing her virginity to an older boy from the neighbourhood, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who finished in eight thrusts, she still remembers. He’ll end up being an important character in her life and Joe’s story: while most of the men we meet don’t get any names, some get a letter (K, S, F, L, H). Only Jerôme gets a full name. From then, she’s unhinged. The next story she tells Seligman, who interjects every once in a while with odd fly-fishing metaphors, is about her and her friend B’s (Sophie Kennedy Clark) train adventures: the two teens (Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin in her teens and 20s, and by Gainsbourg in later years) wager a bag of chocolate candies on whom can get with more men before the train reaches its final destination.

Joe compares her “cunt,” a word von Trier, who also wrote the screenplay for Nymphomaniac, uses quite liberally, to a very sensitive sliding door at a supermarket. She’s fighting a rebellion against love, and when one of her friends dares tell her that the secret ingredient to sex is love, Joe won’t have it. She’s fired up and at this point is more determined to dispel that dopey notion. She has a regular roster of men who visit her apartment, but most are one-time deals. As such, she’s had to develop methods and techniques to keep her guys in check. There are tight schedules and meticulously timed rendez-vous and she even has a system for returning the messages men leave on her machine.

Nymphomaniac posters

She doesn’t look like she’s having fun and while there is a ton of explicit sex in Nymphomaniac, the film is not sexy. At all. It’s sometimes painful to watch, like seeing a drug addict continue to use when you know damn well she’ll never get the high she’s looking for. You have to wonder what was left on the cutting-room floor: the two parts show a title card before they start stating they are edited versions of von Trier’s film, but they’ve been approved by the director. Huh. So much of what Joe does seems inconsequential that when the wife of one of Joe’s men visits Joe’s apartment with her three kids, the emotional – and darkly funny – scene is very welcome. The woman is played by Uma Thurman who is without a doubt the heart of Nymphomaniac. I doubt Thurman’s been better outside a Tarantino film. It’s one of the few times in the film that the characters feel much emotion: the audience always is, but Joe and her companions are blasé about everything, and don’t seem to have lives outside of their romps, making the Thurman scene especially important.

Thurman appears towards the end of Volume 1, too briefly, but it doesn’t take long for von Trier to make up for lost time. By the end of the first part of Nymphomaniac, Joe is in a panic: mid-coitus with Jerôme, she stops feeling anything. Volume 2 sets up a “How Joe got her groove back”-type arc, and she goes to great lengths to do that. You see – all too much, sometimes – that her addiction has ruined her life. None of it is enjoyable for her and it might be even less so for the audience. It’s torturous – sometimes literally – to continue to feed the beast. In one of the eight chapters of Nymphomaniac, Joe visits a sadomasochist played by Jamie Bell. There’s sex throughout Nymphomaniac – a bit more in Vol. 1 than Vol. 2, but a bit less conventional in Vol. 2 than Vol. 1.

Nymphomaniac is anything but conventional, but it’s odd and uneven thematically. Von Trier at times celebrates female sexuality, then punishes it and Gainsbourg, who’s great as usual. You feel for Joe, but you also don’t like her much. She feels guilty about her nymphomania and the things she’s done and wants someone else to agree that she’s a bad person. Seligman, who she is telling her story to, makes excuses for her behaviour. There’s plenty Joe does that she should feel guilty about, least of which is referring to black men as “negroes.” Challenged by Seligman that the term isn’t “politically correct,” she says she’s just calling a spade a spade. This is the same woman who earlier proclaimed that she just “demanded more from the sunset.” But also the same woman who asks her partners to “fill all my holes.” I also found there was a bit too much hand-holding narratively. The audience doesn’t get a sense that what’s happening and why it’s happening is up to interpretation when Seligman explains it all as black-and-white. In that regard, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour was much stronger. Trust the actors to tell the story that’ll have the audience feeling things.

The real measure, I think, is whether Nymphomaniac would work as a drama without or with way fewer explicit sex scenes. It would surely be a shorter film, though a less adventurous one too. Save for LaBeouf, who goes in and out of a weird accent I couldn’t quite place, the performances in Nymphomaniac are stellar, especially Thurman, Gainsbourg and Martin. Why, though, did Joe age more quickly than Jerôme? While two actors play Joe and Jerôme during the 30-or-so years over which Nymphomaniac takes place, LaBeouf is Jerôme, an older character to begin with, for longer than Martin plays Joe. By the end of last year’s Derek Cianfrance otherwise excellent film The Place Beyond the Pines, Eva Mendes’ character is made up to look ragged, old and worn out, while Bradley Cooper’s character maybe had four greys. Why do Gainsbourg and LaBeouf share the screen in Nymphomaniac?

There is no doubt von Trier didn’t want to dip his toe in the water here: he fully commits to the raunch and explicitness and doesn’t look back, except maybe to make sure the audience is feeling something – pain, shame for Joe, horror, awe.

Volumes 1 and 2 of Nymphomaniac are playing at Excentris in Montreal in English with French subtitles.

★★½ (out of ★★★★)

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