Nymphomaniac Review

Posted: December 2, 2014 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

nymphomaniac-poster-portableWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

When it comes to contemporary filmmakers, Lars von Trier is probably my largest cinematic blind spot. This is one of the most controversial and important figures in film today and I hadn’t seen any of his movies. It wasn’t from lack of interest, in fact I’m very interested in his work, but I just hadn’t really get around to it. I do know a little bit about the man though, notably that his work is often meant to provoke extreme reactions from audiences. His newest effort, Nymphomaniac, seemed especially designed to frustrate filmgoers. The film is four hours (split into two two hour increments) revolves around copious amounts of deviant sexual behaviour, and features graphic depictions of said behaviour, received a lot of controversy leading to its release, but wasn’t actually seen by too many people, and the ones who did had very mixed reactions. Still, the promise of bold and uncompromising cinema is very enticing, and when you add on the celebrated filmmaker and great cast, I had every reason to be excited for Nymphomaniac.

In an abandoned alley, an elderly man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) stumbles across a woman beaten and alone. That woman is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and she asks that Seligman not call the cops or ambulances. Seligman agrees and instead takes her back to his home to rest. As she sits in the guest bed, Seligman tends to her wounds and asks about who she is. Joe comes to reveal herself as a nymphomaniac and begins to tell the tale of her sex-filled life, from her early desires as a child to her time as a teenager/young woman (where she is played by Stacy Martin), all leading to how she came to be beaten and left in an alley.

Given that this is my introduction to an important director, I suppose I should start by talking about the direction, which is quite impressive. From the opening scene, I was struck by the strong cinematography. The way the camera moves through a gentle snow fall makes for a mesmerizing few minutes, before being interrupted by a wide shot of Joe lying alone in an alley while Metal band Rammstein plays over the soundtrack. It’s a very interesting way to start a film, one that works quite well and informs the rest of the film. There is some very beautiful cinematography from Manuel Alberto Claro, which von Trier often undercuts with extreme turns in the story, soundtrack, or some other stylistic flourish. A lot of these choices work really well, especially the soundtrack which makes great use of classical pieces (including a Dmitri Shostakovich piece used in Eyes Wide Shut) and more rock oriented music like Steppenwolf and the aforementioned Rammstein. Granted, I’m not sure I saw the point of all of von Trier’s stylistic flourishes, but they rarely distract and the ones that work work very well.

The film tells a fairly interesting story, though a highly improbable one. The framing device of the extended conversation between Joe and Seligman is itself doubtful, but this is compounded by a certain turns in Joe’s story which take some ridiculous turns as the film goes on. Of course, I don’t think it’s all meant to be appreciated on a literal level, and is more meant for von Trier to comment his musings on sexuality in the contemporary world. There’s a running theme of Seligman trying to find intellectual meaning in Joe’s sexual escapades, and it seems to be some sort of critique on people’s need to over analyze sex in the media, a theory supported by Joe’s almost mechanical way of going about it. Or maybe it’s some sort of metaphor for the critics and film scholars who’ve written think-pieces on von Trier’s previous efforts, and if so I’m playing right into his hands with a base analysis here. There’s also an interesting examination of gender politics at work here. At the top of this review, I described the film’s depictions of sex as deviant, but the film asks if they really are, or if they’d still be considered deviant if the genders were reversed. It’s an interesting exploration and a question worth examining. There’s other material here too, notably in relation to religious symbolism. To fully explore all that von Trier is analyzing would take more viewings, but at the moment this is what popped out to me. While I do admire and enjoy the themes von Trier is grappling with, I do wish he would have been a little less transparent and built a more nuanced story. On that note, I also take issue with the ending, which seems to go against the story so von Trier can fit in one final provocation.

Though you wouldn’t know it from my plot description, Nymphomaniac has a huge cast, and it’s one that impresses greatly. For all the controversy regarding the film’s sexual content, the heart of Nymphomaniac lies in the conversations between Joe and Seligman. These are two very different characters who found common ground in a shared loneliness.  Stellan Skarsgård is able to convey the sense of a man who hasn’t really lived, and Charlotte Gainsbourg captures a great mix of regret for mistakes made as well as pride for who she is. Gainsbourg also has to go through some emotional turns through the movie and she delivers a very powerful performance. I was also surprised with newcomer Stacy Martin, who has a lot more screentime as the younger Joe than I expected. She does a great job capturing the excitement and nervousness of a young person experiencing her sexual awakening while eventually moving into a more nuanced and relaxed performance as she grows older and becomes routine. Uma Thurman has a great small role as a woman whose marriage is affected by Joe’s actions. There’s also some memorable turns from Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Shia LaBeouf, and even Christian Slater as Joe’s father. It’s a cast of unconventional choices, but all work well.

I can’t say I love Nymphomaniac. It’s a pretty transparent vehicle for von Trier to explore his own unorganized musings on sexuality, not all of its stylistic tricks are necessary, and I also think Steve McQueen’s Shame was able to explore similar territory with a more nuanced style, story, and themes. That said, I still greatly respect and admire Lars von Trier for what he was able to accomplish with Nymphomaniac. It’s a sprawling and ambitious film that’s well-made and well-acted, with great scenes, and provides genuine food for thought. Given the subject matter, I can’t really recommend this to the casual filmgoer, but any serious film buff should see Nymphomaniac, if for no other reason than to be part of the conversation.


  1. themovievampire says:

    First Von Treir movie… wow… talk about jumping straight into the deep end.

    Joking aside, this actually isn’t that bad of a starting off point. Outside of the extreme content this is actually one of his more accessible and entertaining works.

    • PG Cooper says:

      What can I say, I go for the jugular. I’ve actually been interested in Antichrist in Melancholia for a long time. I’m even more interested now.

      Also, regarding the extreme content, I found that I got over it pretty quickly. It’s jarring at first just because most movies don’t have such graphic content, but once I got used to it it was just part of the story.

  2. Shauna says:

    I JUST finished watching this two parter on the weekend. I was actually going to ask you if you’d watched it and what you thought. I was incredibly impressed with it actually. And I thought the ending was profound. I found myself feeling betrayed by Seligman which I figure is how they meant me to feel after Joe confiding so much in him and telling him he was perhaps her first friend.

  3. CMrok93 says:

    Volume 1 was good because it showed me a side to von Trier I wasn’t expecting to see. Then the second part came around and it was back to his good old ways. Nice review Dan.

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