Nymphomanic Vol.1 and Vol.2

Year: 2013
Country: Denmark, Germany, Belgium, France, UK
Writer: Lars Von Trier
Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Shia LeBeof
Vol. 1: 3/5
Vol. 2: 2/5

Gainsborough as Joe in Nymphomaniac
Gainsborough as Joe in Nymphomaniac

Despite being a Von Trier fan, I didn’t watch either of the Nymphomaniac movies when they were originally released due to the media FRENZY around the subject matter. Looking back, it’s astonishing how desperate people were to hate the films, and it was almost as if no one had ever addressed the subject of sex or sexuality in a film previously…

This might sounds familiar today because it is actually impossible to browse the internet without stumbling across a gaggle of articles concerning Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) which was released on Valentine’s Day. It was the numerous boring articles referring to mild bondage or people buying up the contents of B&Q that reminded me I was yet to give Von Trier’s Nymphomanic a chance.

Nymphomaniac is one movie split into two volumes due to its four hours total screen time. The film opens in an alleyway where local man Seligman, played by Von Trier veteran, Stellan Skarsgård, sees a young woman passed out on the floor, having clearly been in some sort of fight. He wakes her, and as she protests against him calling the police, instead takes her home for a cup of tea. The young woman is Joe (Gainsborough), who quickly settles into Seligman’s home and tells him her life story: the life story of a nymphomaniac.

Martin as Young Joe in Nymphomaniac
Martin as Young Joe in Nymphomaniac

No matter what the subject matter is, this is first and foremost a Lars Von Trier film.

The film is shot beautifully; carefully preserving the classic Von Trier atmosphere and ensuring you are uncomfortably enthralled from start to finish.

Joe tells her story entirely from her perspective, and Gainsborough’s soft tones reel you in instantly. As she talks about her experiences, she is countered by Seligman who offers his own mathematical, religious and philosophical views on her life. The exchanges between Gainsborough and Skarsgård are hypnotic, though difficult to get on board with at the start.

Gainsborough is, as always, fantastic in her role – as is Martin as Joe’s younger self. Martin holds the film together for the entire first volume, and though Gainsborough has grittier material to master in the second part, Martin is impressive as the young girl feeding her incurable sexual desires. The supporting cast are also extremely good, particularly Jamie Bell who is a masochistc male enigma. The only devastating flaw is Shia LeBeouf’s accent which, as far as I can tell, was the only thing the critics were right to hate. It’s got to be one of the worst attempts at a British accent committed to film.

And so to the sex.

Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac
Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac

I personally found it quite refreshing to see sex scenes acted out as actual sex. Even though almost all the sex in the film is vile, it was invigorating not to have to watch a female face smothered in make-up, lit like an angel with incredible cleavage, and an oiled-up man who refuses to share in the nudity with his female co-star. Nymphomaniac is a film about a woman who loves sex, but never really enjoys it. Von Trier is adamant that the audience share in Joe’s emptiness, and with every orgasm you become more and more tired. The sex is about the function of the act, and the bodies involved. Don’t watch this if you want to get in the mood, I promise you by the end, you’ll just want to cry at the thought of it.

Considering how far we’ve come in terms of taste and exposure, I don’t think many people will be shocked by the shots of erect penises or close-ups of vaginas. I genuinely preferred this to fake, airbrushed shots you would usually get in a Hollywood movie, and it was nice to see the male cast strip off and expose themselves as equals to the female bodies on screen. It’s the fact that there’s so much nudity aligned with a queasy feeling of guilt, pain and emptiness that Von Trier manages to remove any ideas of sex as pleasure.

I enjoyed Vol. 1 much more than I anticipated. It begins as an interesting story of a woman’s sexual discovery and journey to where she is now. Von Trier knows how to tell a story, and the two hours disappeared and I wanted to jump straight into Vol.2. If you are a social moth like myself and have four hours to spare, I would recommend watching the two films together as it is one continuous story. The end of the first Volume isn’t even a natural end but more an exact halfway point.

The first Volume is very much focused on the development of Joe’s character, as well as the building of her relationship with the stranger who saved her from the alleyway, but the second Volume descends into Von Trier madness. This is where it gets nastier and dirtier, but the story loses its way significantly. However, Gainsborough continues to sell it and is committed to her portrayal of Joe, even if the events taking place seem more and more ridiculous.

Strapped in for Von Trier's Nymphomaniac
Strapped in for Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac

It’s the final scenes, however, which were most troubling for me. I won’t give anything away, but Von Trier’s ending seems to undermine everything that has happened before it. I understand Von Trier, and I wouldn’t expect them all to live happily ever after, but the way he chooses to end the film feels like the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to the audience, which is a little unfair after dedicating four hours of my life to his film, but that’s just my opinion.

If you’re a Von Trier fan I’m sure you will enjoy Nymphomaniac. The storytelling, performances and overall concept are worth taking the time to be part of. Despite the rather sickening moments in Vol.2, Von Trier is an incredible filmmaker and I don’t regret watching it; even if it left me with an overwhelming feeling of disgust – which in itself is an achievement.

For those who have already seen Nymphomaniac and liked it, check out The Idiots (Idioterene, 1998) which continues to haunt me to this day.

Review by Alexandra Ferguson