When well-educated Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) beaten in an alley, he decides to take her in. They spend a long night together and Joe recounts her often-sordid life story. She focuses on her many sexual experiences and walks Seligman through her life, right up to the point he finds her in the alleyway.
Lars Von Trier is a director that likes to shock. From the hideous handjob in Antichrist to the corruption of Billy Elliot in Nymphomanac, Von Trier has alienated audiences. Nymphomaniac is really no exception and fits pretty nicely into his European inspired art house output.
Nymphomaniac is shocking cinema but its not exploitative. In fact its not even pornography. Instead it’s a story about a girl that likes to fuck and for Western men this concept shouldn’t be too alien. However, when a man sleeps around he’s applauded by his mates – for a girl, sleeping around comes with many more derogatory titles. This isn’t to say that Nymphomaniac is a feminist tract, rather it’s a film about sexual desires and the problem of defining them according to gender. Everyone wants to fuck.
Depending on the country that you see Nyphomaniac in will likely determine how edited the version of the film is. Trier’s film is ambitious and depending on how tolerant different countries are to explicit imagery viewers may see a variety of different cuts of the film. The version that’s screened in the UK is split into two distinct, self contained films with their own titles and closing credits. There’s even a coming up next on Nymphomaniac type montage at the end of the first volume, luring viewers into the second part in a way familiar to TV viewers.
Nymphomaniac is a challenging film but it does something that many films haven’t; it talks about sex candidly and even shows it on camera. There is a convincing rhythm to this film as Joe recounts her tale that’s led her to become a battered, self-hating person. Her interlocking stories of her past, that digress and wander with the help of Seligman, tease the viewer with subtle hints and promises of more revelations.
This is the third film in Von Trier’s trilogy that started with Antichrist, continued through Melancholia (both starring Gainsbourg) and finishes in this sexually charged double bill. The narrative follows a person that society would define as ‘bad’, whose compulsive vices lead her into stranger and stranger places. Set in England between the 1970s and 2000s, it focuses completely on Joe’s sexual exploration. This focus never really diversifies and when it does it’s often down to Seligman’s metaphors.
Volume 1 stars Stacy Martin, a relative newcomer, as Young Joe and it covers her childhood, her loving father (Christian Slater) whose death is the most harrowing vignette, and the loss of her virginity to a distinctly uncaring Shi LaBeouf. The Volume continues detailing teenage sexual adventures, and a terrifying confrontation with a spurned wife (Uma Thurman).
The second part, Volume 2, is much less controlled and it’s noticeably weaker. Gainsbourg replaces Stacy Martin as the timeline nears the present and Joe falls into the arms of polite sadist (Jamie Bell). Joe’s acquired worldliness leads her into a new profession, that of a shady debt collector, which in turn brings her into contact with other socially questionable sexual activity such as paedophilia. Joe takes on surrogate daughter and temporary lover (Mia Goth) in a partnership that involves sex and of course, turns out badly.
Stellan Skarsgard shines as the intelligent old academic who loves adding his thoughts and analysis to Joe’s story. His character Seligman never responds sexually to the increasingly explicit tone of the stories told. His impotence is similar to that of the audience and although Selgiman never participates, he is present in every scene as without him the story wouldn’t be told.
Perhaps the best thing about this film is the juxtaposition between Joe and Seligman’s life experiences. For Joe she likes to experience everything first hand and in a tangible manner, for Seligman he is more reserved, his experiences much more abstract and academic. In a sense it means that neither can understand each other but it does allow for an interesting conversation.
Towards the end of Volume 2 we discover that Joe likes to manipulate people for her own ends and this makes the voracity of her storytelling questionable. This does impact the film negatively and the denouement is perhaps the lowest point of the two-part film.
Nymphomaniac ends on what’s really a dud note, but it’s the story that carries us to that point that’s worth watching. It’s a surprisingly rich film, that’s as seductive as it is repulsive, and at times the incessant sexual imagery gives way to moments that are as poignant as they are brief. Nymphomaniac is a film that’s in turn funny, hateful, and impressively candid when it comes to the portrayal of the strong female sexual desire.
This, of course, isn’t a film for everyone but for those that do brave the societal constrictions regarding sexual representation, they’ll find a film that’s as considered as it is sprawling. Not for the faint hearted, Von Trier has created a visual experience that’s entertaining, insightful, and at times humorous. There are horrors, scenes that don’t quite sit well, but that’s the balance, and like reality we have to take the good with the bad.