Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a film of extraordinary power. This is quite possibly the director’s best film since Dogville, and like that film, this is an experience that requires patience and an open mind. With that being said, Nymphomaniac is not the sex-fest that the clever marketing campaign would have you believe. In actuality, it is a disturbing – and surprisingly beautiful – character study.
Nymphomaniac is split up into two volumes.
When we first meet Joe (the exquisite Charlotte Gainsbourg), she is lying in an alley in the middle of the night, beaten, bruised and unconscious. A friendly passerby named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) offers her shelter and a cup of tea at his modest home. Over the next four hours, she proceeds to walk him through her sexual history, telling him of her unquenchable desire for sex and the people who have shaped her story and fed her addiction.
Joe believes that she is a bad person, inside and out. Seligman tries to convince her otherwise, insisting that she stay true to her nature. The truth is that Joe discovered her sexuality at a very early age, and ever since then, she has been a slave to her sexuality. It rules her life. It is inescapable. The men that she will meet over the course of the film use her to fulfill their lustful desires – all except for one, a sadistic dominant named K (played by an intensely creepy Jamie Bell) who prefers to brutally beat her rather than have sex with her. Joe willingly walks into these scenarios, knowing full well the risks that may be involved. Her addiction has made her numb – and at some point during volume two of this saga, she loses all sensation in her genitalia – but there is still a touch of tenderness there, tucked away under the mask.
Joe’s first sexual partner, Jerome (a dull Shia LaBeouf), drifts in and out of her life from time to time. He is the only man that Joe has ever truly loved. However, this love will be put to the test in events leading up to the unforgettable finale.
Like most of the films in Trier’s oeuvre, Nymphomaniac is an unapologetically literary film which explores the psychological and philosophical aspects of sexuality. Never before has a film truly investigated the life of a sex addict in the way that this one does. Nymphomaniac is a dense, intellectually satisfying epic that asks you to consider the humanity of such a person. Trier even draws comparisons between the act of cruising for sex and the art of fly fishing, and there are plenty of religious symbols and parallels along the way as well.
The performances are all wonderful, especially Charlotte Gainsbourg. This is one of the bravest actresses currently working in the business today. Stacey Martin is a revelation as young Joe. Shia LaBeouf is as good as he is going to get here. Christian Slater is perfect in a heartbreaking role as Joe’s father. Uma Thurman turns in a tour-de-force of a supporting role as a scorned ex-wife. Jamie Bell is creepy as hell as K.
Much has been made of the explicit sexual content of the film. Yes. It is there. In abundance. And there are even a few brief shots of unsimulated sexual activity, but as pointless as those shots are, they do not distract. The playfully perverse marketing campaign would have you believe that this film is a non-stop erotic romp, and this would be misleading – although that is probably the point. Many are going to go in expecting arty porn, and they’ll come out four hours later knowing exactly what they didn’t get.
See the film for yourself. I loved it. Nymphomaniac is one of the best films of the year.