Film Review: Nymphomaniac (R18+) (UK/France, 2014)

nymphomaniac posters de lars von trier

Nymphomaniac, stylised as NYMPH()MANIAC (yes, the use of brackets is what you think it signifies), is definitely an ambitious outing for Lars Von Trier, yet coming out of the cinema, I don’t know why I should have been feeling any sense of surprise regarding the film’s content matter or the way in which is was presented on-screen. The ad campaigns for the film have been clever indeed, from the release of short videos from each of the film’s ‘chapters’ to the posters depicting the characters at the point of orgasm. The sexuality of the film has been harnessed in presenting a film which could be read as a four hour long artistic porn trip, when in actual fact, it’s far from it.

There’s something in a director’s ability to draw the audience in for any period of time and keep their attention. With Nymphomaniac, Von Trier has brought us into Joe’s (wonderfully and boldly played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) world of desire, sexual frustration and satisfaction easily, yet it’s not a comfortable experience. By the third or fourth chapter the sex scenes, while shown in abundance and graphic nature, seem more technical than sexual and as an audience, I don’t think we’re meant to be shocked by anything happening on the screen once we reach hour three. Perhaps this is an insight into the life of Joe’s life as a woman who has based her existence on satiating the insatiable – once she reaches the point of climax with the object of her romantic chase, she can no longer feel sexual fulfilment. Life to her seems banal and so, in order to reach those highs she felt as a teenager, she (along with the audience) is forced to look elsewhere and expand her horizons, as it were.

The story itself is cleverly told – we’re first introduced to Joe as she lay bloodied and beaten in an alleyway. She is found by a charming and seemingly harmless older man, Seligman (portrayed by the awesome Stellan Skarsgård) and brought to his home to recuperate after she shuns any medical assistance. From there, the audience witnesses their relationship develop, as Joe relates her extensive sexual history and how that impacted her relationships with others, in particularly her main love interest Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Where Gainsbourg plays these scenes with a self-deprecating assuredness about her, Skarsgård brings a certain naivety to his role, one that is fully explained in the second volume of the film. There are some darkly comic moments between the two that aren’t there to lighten the mood of the film I feel, but to bring another sense of realness to the stories Joe tells as the movie goes on.

There are plenty of notable performances in this film. ‘Young Joe’, portrayed by newcomer Stacy Martin is excellent in carrying much of the weight of the film, toeing the line of innocence and aloofness with flair. Her scenes with LaBeouf are some of the best, demonstrating the chase and then deterioration of a relationship brilliantly. Christian Slater, as Joe’s loving father doesn’t have a great deal of screen time, but his scenes with his on-screen daughter speak volumes about the way Joe has grown up. Much media attention has been paid to LaBeouf and his recent off the rails spiral, but apart from a weird Australian-South African-Danish hybrid of an accent, the actor gave a completely stable performance in this film. Perhaps most notably, I found Jamie Bell’s role as professional sadist K to be one of the standout performances of Nymphomaniac overall. The scenes he shares with Gainsbourg, whose character comes to him seeking some sort of sensation, are some of the most uncomfortable to watch, yet in the grand scheme of the film, they’re also the scenes that offer the most release from the built up tension which had obviously been brewing. There is no penetrative sexual relationship between K and Joe, yet their intense sado-masochist relationship clearly has another level of connection added that stands outside of those he shares with the other women who wait for their turn in his waiting room.

The second volume of Nymphomaniac has more pace to it than the first and was easier to get into. You want Joe to regain some kind of control over the addiction that has ruined so many aspects of her life and to an extent, you get that satisfaction. But then, you’re thinking as the volume rolls out – how does she come to be beaten so badly and left alone? When you reach this point in the film, it’s possibly some of the most confronting visuals that we see; it’s cold, it’s brutal and it’s representative of everything Joe knows and hates about herself. Her relationship with teenager P (Mia Goth) doesn’t even stand up as the most controversial element of the film at this stage, and I think that’s indicative of the way Von Trier has constructed this complex and layered landscape.

The end of Nymphomaniac will leave the audience talking but it really does wrap the storyline up quite well. Throughout the four hours, the back and forth between Joe and Seligman is akin to that of a daughter-father discussion where the younger claims repeatedly that the elder hasn’t understood anything she’s said, regardless of whether or not he’s been trying to. The end of the film will test if you’ve been the one listening or not – over the four hours we’ve been listening to Joe’s story, have we grasped the concept of her nymphomania? Why she’s hated herself? Or have we just assumed that she’s a vessel that wants to be fucked?

You’ll have to go on that journey yourself to find out.


Nymphomaniac is in selected Australian cinemas now.


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