Film Review: ‘Nymphomaniac’

Nymphomaniac Review

With his sexually explicit, four-hour magnum opus “Nymphomaniac,” world cinema’s enfant terrible Lars von Trier re-emerges as its dirty-old-man terrible, delivering a dense, career-encompassing work designed to shock, provoke and ultimately enlighten a public he considers altogether too prudish. Racy subject aside, the film provides a good-humored yet serious-minded look at sexual self-liberation, thick with references to art, music, religion and literature, even as it pushes the envelope with footage of acts previously relegated to the sphere of pornography. Even so, in this cut of “Nymphomaniac,” the only arousal von Trier intends is of the intellectual variety, making this philosophically rigorous picture — which opens abroad on Dec. 25 and domestically in two parts, on March 21 and April 18 — a better fit for cinephiles than for the raincoat crowd.

As an onscreen disclaimer makes clear from the outset, “This film is an abridged and censored version” of von Trier’s bigger, longer and uncut edit, which is said to run five-and-a-half hours. According to a note from producer Louise Vesth included in the press notes, “Technically the changes in the abridged version consist of an editing out of the most explicit closeups of genitals,” though such footage cannot possibly account for 90 minutes of footage (can it?), especially considering that the American version serves up a montage of roughly two dozen flaccid penises, presumably an inventory of its protagonist’s conquests. For most, four hours will be plenty, and the film doesn’t feel compromised in any way. (Different territories will reportedly see different cuts, according to local decency standards.)

After a hypnotic opening sequence — a back-alley symphony of sorts, featuring the drum of rain on tin roofs — an older gentleman named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) bloody and abused on the cold, wet pavement. He invites her back to his sparsely furnished flat for tea and conversation, eager to hear this alluring stranger’s confession. “It will be long and moral, I’m afraid,” Joe warns, and commences to retell her entire sexual history, beginning with the line, “I discovered my cunt at age 2.” That line, sure to spark nervous laughs, sets the tone for a character who cannot abide euphemisms. It is always her “cunt” in question, never something more delicate, and in no time, she’s riding the train in search of partners.

Sex is a game to the teenage Joe (played by Stacy Martin), who forms a club “committed to combat the love-obsessed society.” Seligman listens intently to the story of her deflowering — an unromantic formality at the hands of a lad named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf, who appears naked and erect) — and subsequent blooming as a sexual being. Joe’s tale divides into eight stylistically distinct chapters, which alternate between frosty color and stark black-and-white, with Martin playing the character for the duration of the first volume. Though Martin could conceivably be mistaken for a young Jane Birkin, she’s a bit of a stretch as an early version of Gainsbourg, showing few of the tomboyish qualities of the star’s teenage years, to the extent that one wonders why von Trier didn’t ask Gainsbourg to play the character at all ages.

A model not shy about nudity, Martin doesn’t seem at all awkward, but rather embodies — to riff upon the language of “Lolita’s” lusty Humbert Humbert — a young “nymph.” For Seligman, that word evokes connotations of fly fishing, and von Trier indulges the suggestion by inserting stock footage of the sport. Seligman has a peculiar effect on the shape of “Nymphomaniac,” which has an unfortunate habit of resetting to the framing conversation any time things start to get “good” onscreen — not racy, necessarily, but just as Joe’s story draws auds in, Seligman reliably interrupts with some sort of comment about what it all means.

In that respect, the film appears to be interpreting itself, as Seligman points out cultural references (imposing everything from Christian symbolism to Fibonacci numbers) and offers unsolicited feedback along the way. And yet, there’s nothing to indicate that his reading of the material is correct (at one point, Joe quips, “I think this was one of your weakest digressions,” and begs to continue), rendering him somewhat like another Nabokov character: Charles Kinbote, the second-rate academic who smugly imposes his lesser-minded theories upon a superior poet’s work in “Pale Fire.”

In time, we learn that Seligman is a virgin, a revelation that not only explains his inability to relate to many of Joe’s escapades — which shift from the workplace to her apartment to the hospital where her father (Christian Slater) lies delirious and dying — but also may be von Trier’s way of critiquing critical interpretation altogether. Consider this: Seligman serves as a stand-in for the film critic, a dilettante who free-associates as he listens, drawing educated but somewhat naive conclusions about someone else’s deeply personal life experience. But unlike most critics, Seligman casts no judgment. And yet, by elbowing in whenever Joe’s stories approach relatability, he forces a buffer between the film and its audience, reminding us of the film’s dialectical structure instead of inviting personal responses.

At the end of “Vol. 1,” having tested the boundaries with countless partners and faced the consequences of her actions — depicted in an unexpectedly amusing confrontation between Joe and one of her lover’s wives (a ferocious Uma Thurman), who insists on showing her children “the whoring bed” — Joe loses sensation where it counts. Regaining her capacity for orgasm will become the focus of the film’s second half, which opens with Joe pregnant via Jerome (still LaBeouf, digitally fused with a body double to appear quite the stud in the sack) and veers into far darker territory.

Those familiar with von Trier’s work will pick up on connections between his earlier films and “Nymphomaniac,” as when Jerome’s offers to let Joe pursue her lost orgasm with other lovers — a point of overlap with Skarsgard’s unorthodox sexual arrangement in “Breaking the Waves.” In the nearly two decades since von Trier unveiled the Dogma 95 manifesto, his work has become increasingly provocative, from integrating real sex in “The Idiots” to figuratively shaking his fist at God with “Antichrist.”

If “Nymphomaniac” feels somewhat tame by comparison, that is surely a reflection of the compromised edit, considering the controversial elements Joe experiments with in the second half: sadomasochism, pedophilia, homosexuality and, most outrageously, a mixed-race three-way. (Any who doubt whether von Trier wants audiences to laugh at the absurdity of it all need only consider the sight of Joe, looking bewildered in a cheap hotel, framed by two visibly excited black suitors. And yet, the director still intends to scandalize, serving up such images as labia that “open” to reveal an eye and a metal rod inserted into a woman’s genitals.

Still, if von Trier means to challenge the depiction of sex onscreen, the truth of the matter is that people can find far more explicit imagery with a simple Google search. And when it comes to the potency of ideas, his script doesn’t uncover anything that wasn’t previously addressed by Anais Nin, Henry Miller or the Marquis de Sade. In fact, given the film’s overall tendency to describe rather than depict specific memories — the exception being the “Silent Duck” chapter, in which Jamie Bell disciplines and degrades Joe on camera — “Nymphomaniac” might actually have been more effective as a novel.

But von Trier doesn’t entirely trust the power of his words either, punctuating Joe’s narration with cheeky diagrams and generic stock footage, often to humorous effect. One can hear von Trier’s politics woven into dialogue spoken by each of the characters, as when Skarsgard declares the concepts of both sex and religion interesting, “but you won’t find me on my knees with regards to either.” Later, Joe cuts to the essence of things, rejecting a sex addiction counseling session by announcing, “I love my cunt and my filthy dirty lust.”

The film aims to overcome millennia of shame and judgment toward sexual behavior, though von Trier is hardly the first crusader on this front, and such landmark art films as “Belle de Jour” and “Romance” delve far deeper into the impulses behind aberrant sex. By contrast, “Nymphomaniac” feels curiously devoid of psychological interpretation, rejecting Seligman’s pet theories on that front, while also using the dialogue between these  characters to preempt charges of misogyny. Though the film ends with a chapter titled “The Gun” (as phallic a symbol as they come), neither Freud nor Jung factors into von Trier’s design — a relief for any anticipating an incestuous turn from Joe’s father figure.

It’s one thing to declare sex a fact of life and insist that audiences confront their unease at seeing it depicted (or, equally constructive, their intense excitation at its mere mention), but quite another to fashion a fictional woman’s life around nothing but sex. As courageously depicted by Gainsbourg, Joe is ultimately a tragic character. In the film’s best-written scene, she outs a pedophile in deep denial of his own impulses, inadvertently revealing the irony (and promised moral crux) of her situation: Despite all the physical contact she achieves with strangers, Joe suffers from profound loneliness. Her story is a bid for a different sort of connection, over which the ever-cynical von Trier maintains the last laugh, sure to ring louder when the uncut version is unveiled next year.

Film Review: 'Nymphomaniac'

Reviewed at the Regent, Westwood, Calif., Dec. 13, 2013. Running time: 117 MIN. (Vol. 1), 124 MIN. (Vol. 2).

Production

(Denmark-Germany-France-Belgium) A Magnolia Pictures release of a Zentropa Entertainment presentation of a Slot Machine, Zentropa Intl. France, Caviar, Zenbelgie, Arte France Cinema, Film I Vast, Groupe Grand Accord production, with support from Danish Film Institute, Film Und Medienstiftung, Eurimages, Deutscher Filmforderfonds, French Centre National du Cinema et de l'Image Anime, Belgian Tax Shelter, Swedish Film Insitute, Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Media Porgramme of the European Union, in cooperation with DR, Nordisk Film & TV Fund, Canal+, Arte France, Nordisk Film Cinema Distribution, Den Vestdanske Filmpulie, Cine+. (International sales: Trustnordisk, Hvidovre, Denmark.) Produced by Louise Vesth. Executive producers, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Marie Gade Denessen, Peter Garde. Co-producers, Marianne Slot, Bert Hamelinck, Madeleine Ekman. Executive co-producer, Bettina Brokemper.

Crew

Directed, written by Lars von Trier. Camera (color/B&W, widescreen/1:1.85), Manuel Alberto Claro; editor, Molly Malene Stensgaard; production designer, Simone Grau Roney, art director, Alexander Scherer; costume designer, Manon Rasmussen; makeup designer, Dennis Knudsen; sound, Andreas Hildebrandt; sound designer/sound supervisor/re-recording mixer, Kristian Selim Eidnes Andersen; visual effects supervisor, Peter Hjorth; special effects, Eric Zumldev; line producers, Marianne Jul Hansen, Sascha Verhey; associate producer, Ida Harder Palmbo; assistant director, Florian Engelhardt; second unit director, Peter Hjorth; casting, Des Hamilton.

With

Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Michael Pas, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier.

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  1. Rex Bagley says:

    This article could not have missed the point of the film more. The film explores the roots of not only physical nymphomania and cultural nymphomania by illustrating the manner in which the inherent turmoil caused by the processes of creation and destruction shape our experiences of sex. Furthermore, the film draws parallels between the religious and secular experiences of sex and the way in which these experiences play a role in shaping cultural constructs like gender roles, stereotypes, etc. I’d expect more from Variety.

  2. Dean says:

    Neither Freud nor Jung? And the beautiful homage to Freud via Segliman (Sigismund, Sigmund). When Joe asks Segliman the meaning of his name, not only does he state that his first name is Jewish but confounds it with Freud’s last name; where as Segliman, in German, in fact, means “the blessed one,” he takes his first name to mean “the happy one” [Freude].

  3. oliver says:

    Half the female audience will see this to see LaBeouf penis…

  4. lj says:

    God I don’t think I’ve ever read such stupid comments by such stupid people. Where has he said that an interracial 3some is more outrageous than paedophilia? Pretty sure he’s implying that out of all the controversial subject matter in the film, the interracial 3some is handled in a particularly outrageous fashion…and what wouldn’t be humorous about 2 huge naked black guys, unable to communicate with either us or Joe, all of a sudden breaking into a fight around an equally naked and bewildered Charlotte who merely wants her “cunt” filled…stupid

  5. Although I had to sign a confidentiality waver, I just have to say that, even though the film editing/effects were far from complete, the movie was an amazing piece of narrative. Sure it had Trier’s quintessential explicit-almost-porn scenes, but it wouldn’t have been the same film without it. But the main character’s life and emotions were captured so incredibly well on scene, that I’ve never related to such an un-relatable as much as I did then. If you can handle it, I will definitely recommend everyone to see this film when in releases this fall. With it’s perfect balance of humous and emotional content, It’s truly Trier’s best film yet.

    More about the movie you can also find it here
    http://movieinfodb.com/en/movie/110414/Nymphomaniac-2013

  6. kelly says:

    The writer of this review is obviously a racist. Pedophillia is OUTRAGEOUOS. Raping a underage child is the outrage. Not some white chick doing two black dudes at the same time. Have you looked on the internet in the last 10 years. Thousands of interracial HOMEMADE VIDEOS showing the same thing. Type Cuckold and you will see what I mean. That’s been going on for hundrends if not thousands of years. Racist Reviewer!

  7. Donatello says:

    Wait, since when is an interracial three-way or homosexuality more outrageous than pedophilia? As others have pointed out, I’m not getting the punch line if this is some kind of sick joke.

  8. Kim says:

    Nah, not a huge fan of this movie (thou I obviously haven’t seen it yet) – and big part of that probably is because I don’t agree with the morals of it.

    I just had to comment on you, Peter Debruge, you’re an excellent writer and it’s a joy read your reviews, thank you!

  9. Anonymous says:

    What’s most telling is that Von Trier actually believes explicit sex is still controversial in 2013.

  10. Michael Nace says:

    So I just read this review and Variety’s review of Scorcese’s new film, and both reviews are extremely well-written, as are most Variety pieces. That being said, no matter how much the intelligentsia wishes to intellectualize these two films, they cannot escape the fact that both of them are little more than part of a new genre I’ll call “art porn.” Essentially, the art porn film sub genre is a subset of the kind of pornography that millions of people download off the internet each day, but masked in the guise of a carefully scripted, well-acted, and meticulously-edited film work.

    The genre isn’t actually new. The film “Calligua,” which featured both Malcom McDowell and Peter O’Toole, is an early example. So is “Boogie Nights” — that film is a porn about porn. How postmodern! Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” is another that comes to mind, and Kubrick even admitted that it was essentially a pornographic movie.

    It’s true that some great works of art were in their time considered “pornography” when they were released, such as Joyce’s “Ulysses.” And it’s also true that there are no hard and fast (puns not intended), objective rules for what governs pornography — only that we know it when we see it, and that when the preponderance of imagery is pornographic, what you have is porn.

    That we got a movie from Von Trier that is essentially a pornographic movie should not come as a surprise. However, I think that filmgoers should take note of the fact that in the past year, we’ve seen a trend — starting in Cannes — of this new “art porn” sub genre coming (again with the puns?) again into mainstream film.

    For my part, I love the films of the 30s and 40s, and somehow those films managed to define classic filmmaking without base imagery when it came to sex and gore. Because this generation of filmmakers simply do not have the chops, their lack of both art and craft is easily masqued by the shocking.

    • Frank W says:

      I remember when Caligula was released and it fell under the umbrella of “Soft Core” but as I think of it, the word “Pornography” was would naturally come after it if it was a delineation from “Hard Core” which is Pornography..

  11. filmsharks says:

    “Perversion – A sexual practice or act considered abnormal or deviant.” It’s not really a question of the audience’s prudishness. It sounds more like Lars Von Trier is the one dealing with his own sexual demons. This is pornography packaged as cinematic art… why blur the lines Mr. Von Trier?

  12. Colonel Peaches says:

    good grief….sounds like the utter crap it’s going to be. let’s all stand up and applaud the political correctness crowds acceptance of pornography. sorry…it needs to stay out of the mainstream.

    • oliver says:

      Agreed! Nowadays you need to be politically correct toward everything trending or the Facebook/Twitter masses will chew you!

  13. Ezer Album says:

    What did he just say? Sound s like the perfect review for a Von trier vacancy epic…….

  14. Jake says:

    I’m confused by your statements Mr. Debruge. You write that Shia appears naked an erect, and then go on to write, a few paragraphs later, that his nudity is digitally fused with a body double. Which is it?
    “(Shia LaBeouf, who appears naked and erect)”
    “(still LaBeouf, digitally fused with a body double to appear quite the stud in the sack)”

  15. crazeyheart says:

    “… controversial elements Joe experiments with in the second half: sadomasochism, pedophilia, homosexuality and, most outrageously, a mixed-race three-way.”

    a consensual three-way encounter among a while woman and two black guys is more controversial and outrageous than the legally defined rape of a child?

  16. wallythedog says:

    I really don’t think people want to watch a 3 hour sex film, I mean I love sex films and watch them all the time, but after six or seven minutes I always loose interest, and move on to something else.

  17. What? says:

    Did you just say that “a mixed-race three-way” is more outrageous than pedophilia???

  18. Brad says:

    In four hours there was no room for the dogs, gerbils and horses?

  19. Joe says:

    Just trying to figure out how pedophilia became less outrageous than a multiracial three-way….

  20. Anne Bronte says:

    Did you just say that inter-racial group sex was more outrageous than pedophilia? Did I read that right?

  21. jane says:

    At least Variety hasn’t lowered itself down to the level of a girlie magazine like the Hollywood Reporter, which has plastered cheap, titillating posters of the film all over its website, perhaps in desperate attempt to drive traffic. Most of their traffic right now is coming from Drudge, however, and most of the comments are from people rightfully sick and tired of being fed trash and told it is a gourmet meal. This film is appealing to the lowest common denominator…just like Miley Cyrus, only in an “art house.”

  22. Sherry says:

    Maybe I’m misinterpreting based on the review, but it sounds like a very “self-important” style of filmmaking. To have a character (Skarsgard) essentially telling us as viewers (throughout the film in interrupting scenes) what to see and think about every aspect of the film, telling us what we’re supposed to take philosophically from it all, I think that’s insulting to the audience. The director is not allowing us to make our own decisions about the material. It sounds defensive from the start, as if he’s trying to make it seem like he’s got an “IMPORTANT” message within all the sex scenes and we’re too dumb to figure it out so he’s got to explain it all to us via Skarsgard’s character and his discussions with this very-blunt girl who’s willing to tell her entire very-personal life story to a complete stranger. I’m not sure I buy it.

  23. Dave says:

    A who’s who of those standing before the gates of hell one day!

  24. Ken from Toronto says:

    Uhhh, no thanks. After subjecting myself to Lars von Tripe’s – er -von Trier’s patented brand of depressive psycho/sexuality in ANTICHRIST and MELANCHOLIA, I wanted to gouge my eyes out. This dude makes the late great Ingmar Bergman seem like Busby Berkeley by comparison.

  25. David Powell says:

    “Oh my gosh, it’s art, it’s so art” Um, no, it’s a bunch of stupid actors getting convinced they’re doing something “daring” when what they’re doing is all over the internet anyway in real porn. More like “oh my gosh, it’s idiots, it’s such total idiots.” These always prang at the box office. The Raincoat crowd will usually stick (um) to their regular material, and everyone else will give it a miss. Waste of video stock & cash by whoever made it.

  26. juanvnuneza says:

    Reblogged this on juanvnunezcineasta and commented:
    Nymphomaniac, el que ya se presenta como el filme pornográfico del polémico Lars Von Trier. En realidad se trata de un drama erótico que narra la vida de una ninfómana y que cuenta con un reparto de lujo en el que destacan Charlotte Gainsbourg, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Shia LaBeouf y Stellan Skarsgård

    • Keith Diggs says:

      ¡Y todos son hijos del mismísimo diablo y están dirigidos al infierno! Esto no es nada más que una vulgar representación del satanismo que se albergue en los corazones izquierdistas. Un estrella del cine que se ha aparecido en unas películas muy grande como Shia LaBoeuf, ¿ con pene empalmado es idea suya del arte? ¡Cuando hay pene erguido ya no hay actuación!

      TRANSLATION for the English speakers.
      And all of them are children of SATAN. This is nothing more than a vulgar presentation of the satanism that liberal hearts harbor. A star that has appeared in HUGE MOVIES like SHIA LABOEF with an ERECT PENIS is your idea of art? When there is an erect penis there is no longer any “acting” going on!

  27. Jacob says:

    Looks stupid.

  28. daaah says:

    Interesting that you think a mixed-race three-way is more outrageous than sadomasochism & pedophilia. Letting your predilections show?

    • Jacob says:

      I think that was the joke, stupid.

      God bless america.

      • ploome says:

        the joke, stupid, is on people like you who see clothes on the naked emperor

        just another impotent asshole poseur director, convincing young actors to do a porrn film

        and this pretentious review, is nauseating

        feh

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