Sundance: A Filmmaker’s Mom Reviews ‘Nymphomaniac’

Nymphomaniac

Julee Johnson gives her take on Lars Von Trier's movie

One of the highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival — other than all the movies — was director Craig Johnson’s story about how he accidentally took his parents to see “Nymphomaniac: Volume 1.”

Johnson, who directed the Lionsgate-acquired “The Skeleton Twins,” attended the festival’s Tuesday night “secret” screening with his folks, only to learn the movie they were about to see was full of explicit sex — not always the most comfortable material to watch with one’s parents. He asked his mom to leave, but she wanted to stay. Variety tracked down Julee Johnson, 64, from Bellingham, Wash., to share her thoughts on “Nymphomaniac.”

First, a quick primer: “Nymphomaniac” tells the story of a woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who through various flashbacks, recounts the many sexual encounters of her adolescent years (Stacy Martin plays the younger version). The unrated movie includes full frontal nudity and co-stars Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard and Christian Slater. It opens March 21.

What happened that night?
Craig’s mom: I didn’t even know what a secret screening was. Craig kind of gave us the heads up. He said, “Mom and dad, there’s a rumor going around it could be a Lars Von Trier movie ‘Nymphomaniac,’ but it could also be the new Wes Anderson movie and you’d probably enjoy that.” Frankly, we were just thrilled he would think of his parents to include in this sneak preview. We were pretty excited to be there.

And then you learned it was “Nymphomaniac”?
My first reaction was to turn to Craig, who was looking mildly panicked. We sat purposefully on the aisle, so we could make an easy escape if need be. Once they announced it, I remembered that we had all of Craig’s suitcases in the trunk of our car, so I wasn’t going anywhere.

What were you expecting?
I didn’t know what to expect with a title like that!

Did you think the story was interesting?
I thought it was an interesting story, and my husband Steve was pretty reluctant to stay for the movie. But when we got to the part where the older gentleman [Skargard] pulls out the Izaak Walton book and they start comparing graphic sex to fly fishing, Steve leans over and says, “This looks interesting. I’ll stay awhile.”

What about all the nudity?
I wasn’t put off by the nudity. But I thought the montage of all the different male genitalia was totally unnecessary.

And the love scenes?
Well, I wouldn’t call them love scenes. She’s a nymphomaniac. She wasn’t even really paying attention. I don’t know much about nymphomaniacs. But my understanding is they are kind of insatiable. She had her schedule, and she had those partners coming in, sometimes four or five a night. And the scene with Uma Thurman, didn’t you think that was amazing? I can’t even remember the last thing I saw Uma Thurman in.

How did you feel about the train scene, where Joe and her friend wander through the cars having sex with multiple strangers?
As a mother, that was difficult for me. No parents wants to see their daughter behaving in that manner. And yet, it was pretty intriguing to watch. That last gentlemen — I was curious to see how she was going to make this work, and boy, she sure did.

Did you ever close your eyes?
That’s something I told Craig I would do if it got too bad. But I did not. I might have looked away a little bit during the montage of penises, because frankly that wasn’t very attractive. I have to tell you a funny thing Craig said when we were walking out of the film. He turned to me and said, “Well Mom, how did that compare to ‘Frozen’?”

Will you see the “Nymphomaniac: Volume 2”?
I did send Craig a text, “I can hardly wait to see part two.” You know what? I’m serious. Not with Craig, mind you. I’m curious. To me, that’s a sign of a good film, when you connect with the characters. I want to know what happened to her.

Would you recommend it to friends?
Uh, probably not. We’re still not living down the day we recommended “Trainspotting.”

What are some of your favorite films this year?
“American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave.” Let’s see, what else have I seen? Shoot, this is the kind of question that a 64-year-old woman’s brain can’t remember. I recently saw the new Sarah Polley film, “Stories We Tell.”

You must be proud of your son for debuting his first Sundance movie.
This has been Craig’s lifelong dream, to make a movie and take it to Sundance. To have it evolve from Saturday afternoon at the premiere and to read all the reviews and have the fabulous deal signed on Tuesday, it is probably, short of the birth of my three children, one of the most exciting weekends of my life. I pretty much told everybody, people on the shuttle, they all heard about Craig and his film. And I guess the other thing I didn’t expect was for people to congratulate us so much. I was just so excited about Craig’s success. It was just really fun to be swept up and included in all that.

Craig’s Mom’s grade for “Nymphomaniac: Volume 1”: a “B.”

Check back in April to read her review of “Nymphomaniac: Volume 2.”

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  1. mary says:

    “…was director Craig Johnson’s story about how…” FYI, the hyperlink for “story” in the previous phrase is missing the : after “http”.

  2. KL duPre says:

    I’ll be looking forward to Mrs. Johnson’s review of Vol. 2. Her enthusiasm has piqued my interest in her son’s film also! Thanks, Mr. Setoodeh, for the entertaining, interesting story & novel POV.

  3. Claudia Laster says:

    Well, Julee is from Bellingham, for heaven’s sake! We have the Pickford Theater.

  4. That is a fun part of getting older. The ability to be open-minded and take a sort of detached and non-judgmental attitude toward things. Plus, people don’t seem to care what you wear that much anymore, and neither do you as long as you’re comfortable.

  5. Miles Maker says:

    “I didn’t know what to expect with a title like that” ? Lol! wow.

  6. lenij says:

    In fairness to the guy he doesn’t know it’s a Lars Von Trier film. Ha ha. Next time don’t bring your parents to secret screenings. #coolmomthough

  7. Ken says:

    Julee Johnson sounds like a peach! Cutest thing I’ve read in Variety for the longest time! Please hire her as an occasional reviewer/reporter.

  8. Suzanne says:

    Is this just a totally ageist, exploitative joke? why should it be funny that a “mom” saw a movie about sex!? I’m sick of the word “mom” being shorthand for square, uptight, uneducated and mass market. Totally square world view where mom’s are stereotypes of American sitcoms. Gross, not funny and mean. Way to reinforce!

    • jedi77 says:

      You will find stereotyping and exploitation everywhere, if you look for it. But please don’t overdo it.

      When a woman, regardless of age, watches a movie with her son, she is a “mom”. Had she gone alone she would have been a “woman”, and with her husband, a “wife”. Same goes, incidentally for the “father”. And had the film been about homosexuality, I imagine the story would have been about the “father” and not the “mother”.

      Also, remember, the story comes from the “son”. So how else to relate the story, if not by focusing on the fact that the woman in question watched it with her son in attendance as well, hence the repeated inclusion of the “mother” factor.

      And FYI, if you cannot see the fun in this story, then you are not trying hard enoungh, because it is there. And every “son” can see it, though obviously not every “daughter”.

  9. allen says:

    I went to see Skeleton Twins the other night at the Eccles Theater here in Park City. Craig Johnson came out to introduce his film and instead simply told this story. “There is no f’ing way I’m sitting next to my parents for this!!!” So funny.

  10. Polo says:

    Great review, short and straight to the point. Hopefully we will get an unrated version but probably MPAA is waiting like hungry hyenas for it.

  11. Roy says:

    Good review and sounds like an interesting movie. Hope it is given a chance in the U.S. Theatres unlike the 1991 erotic thriller Zandalee with Nic cage, Judge Reinhold, Erika Anderson,Steve Buscemi and Marisa Tomei which went straight to video in the US.

  12. goshiluvu says:

    As a 53 year old woman, I don’t find it at all surprising that Mrs. Johnson enjoyed the film. Now, watching it with her son might be a bit uncomfortable.

  13. Colin Vaines says:

    Best reviewer I have read in years. Seriously. A thoughtful and engaged reaction. And I’m delighted that Julee is enjoying her son’s success so much. No one gets as much of a kick out of someone’s success as their own mom.

  14. s says:

    This made me feel good. I took my mom and dad to see Easy Rider when I was 16 and my mom closed her eyes during a scene or two that made me feel uncomfortable. This is an utterly charming and original way to review a film, and now I want to see it.

  15. ThomT says:

    It always seems amazing when we realize how mature our parents are. Wonder why we didn’t realize that when we were younger. Oh I know, when we were younger we were the smart ones. Great interview. Now I want to see a movie that previously held no interest for me at all.

  16. Julienne says:

    Nothing but pure porn.

  17. Simon says:

    Not remotely patronising.s

  18. Eduardo says:

    A brilliant approach and a wonderfull result Mr. Setoodeh. Congratulations

  19. Clark says:

    Please stop assigning Ramin Setoodeh. This clown betrayed the entire LGBT community. Gay readers of Variety should not be subjected to his byline.

  20. Bill Sibley says:

    Craig Johnson you have a really cool mom! She sounds like a real trooper and a good egg and just a swell person to be around. (Yes, I watch a lot of old movies.) Congratulations on “The Skeleton Twins” and tell your mom she needs to immediately start a reviewers column with Variety!

  21. karen says:

    Moms r the best. Fair, sensible and real. A review you can finally understand. A movie with a title that frankly freaked me a little, she manage to give the ‘lay of land’ in a way that is simple and yet informative. Bravo!

  22. equipment guy says:

    Julee Johnson if Variety had an ounce of common sense they would hire you to write reviews. You did a great job talking about a film thet I really had no desire to see and actually I’d like to check it out now, lol. You gave enough tidbits without spoon-feeding it to us and never gave away the ending, BRILLIANT!

  23. Joshua f says:

    Deeeelightful! Mr. Setoodeh, kudos on this refreshing and welcome departure from the typical Hollywoody Sundance reviews found here. Those have their place, obviously, and are very good, but this was a hilarious and entertaining real Sundance moment. Wonderfully devoid of jaded “insider” speak. Just a regular mom of a filmmaker being open and honest about a film she probably would never have seen in a million years. Terrific!

  24. Big Daddy D says:

    Craig Johnson took his mom to see Nymphomaniac?? I would NEVER do that with my folks. His parents must be pretty liberal and open minded. Good on them for going through it.

  25. Truth says:

    Awesome!
    She sounds lovely…
    That’s the kind of critique I would read consistently.

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