The Danish provocateur’s ambitious attempt to intellectualise sex and sexuality comes across as both fascinating and plodding in this first volume.
Dir. Lars von Trier
2013 | Denmark/Germany | Drama | 148 mins | 2.35:1 | English
Not rated (far exceeds R21 guidelines)
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman
Plot: A self-diagnosed nymphomaniac recounts her erotic experiences to the man who saved her after a beating.
Awards: Official Selection (Berlin)
International Sales: TrustNordisk
Subject Matter: Mature/Controversial
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse
(Reviewed on Blu-ray – first published 28 Oct 2018)
This review is of the extended uncut version.
Lars von Trier is no stranger to controversy of any sort, so his ambitious two-parter here should not in any way shock you, because if one could be legitimately shocked by a provocateur, one might lose all sense of what a provocation is. It is, therefore, imperative to look at Nymphomaniac as a film like any other from the Danish filmmaker.
Just because it centers on the twin taboos of sex and sexuality doesn’t mean that it should be deemed any lesser a work of art. Likewise, just because it contains explicit, unsimulated sexual acts doesn’t mean that it should be deemed as pornography. Von Trier is certainly on to something here in this 5 ½ hour ‘opus’, which is broken into two unequal halves (Review of Vol. 2).
Vol. 1 centers on five chapters—”The Complete Angler”, “Jerome”, “Mrs. H”, “Delirium” and “The Little Organ School”, as recounted by a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is recuperating in the house of a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) after being found bruised and motionless in an alley.
“Fill all my holes.”
Each chapter is a peek at Joe’s sordid past, as she discovers her sexuality and an intensification of her nymphomania. But von Trier is also interested in Joe’s relationship with her father, who imbues in her a sense of natural discovery, particularly his fondness for trees. Stacy Martin, in her feature acting debut, plays the younger Joe.
Perhaps the most striking segment cinematographically is “Delirium”, shot in high-contrast black-and-white, while “Mrs. H” presents an absurd scenario of a misunderstanding gone terribly wrong. The other three chapters, particularly “Jerome” and “The Little Organ School” are explicit inquiries into love and lust.
Von Trier’s admiration for Tarkovsky is evident in his reference to a painting by Rublev, and perhaps most tellingly, in his use of Bach’s “The Little Organ Book: Ich Ruf Zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ”, which appeared prominently in Solaris (1972).
While the film features unsimulated sex, exposed genitals and penetration, these were digital compositions of pornographic actors onto the bodies of the film’s actors.
It might be that because the extended uncut version is a good 30 minutes lengthier that it feels plodding, as if von Trier is trying to lull us into a monotonous engagement with his work, which in fairness, already assumes a clinical, depressing tone. His script as performed by Gainsbourg and Skarsgard seems to reveal an intellectual bent that gives the work a measure of seriousness, though some may accuse the filmmaker of indulging in one pretension too many.
In short, Vol. 1 will work best for viewers demanding that cinematic and thematic taboos be challenged head-on, but while the film doesn’t quite achieve a sum that is greater than its parts, its approach to dissecting and depicting sexuality for the big screen is at the very least laudable.