Though its production raised many eyebrows, Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” is being released to minimal fanfare in two volumes after being whittled down from an original five and a half hour cut. Equaling roughly four hours, “Nymphomaniac” manages to be many things. Though it does not successfully dive into all of its ideas, “Nymphomaniac” still manages to be compelling at its extreme length.
Framed by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourgh), the titular nymphomaniac, retelling her story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), “Nymphomaniac” Vol.1 starts when Joe is two years old and first discovering her genitals, and then chronicles her various exploits as she comes to terms with her lust. Vol.2 follows Joe down a darker path after she loses her ability to climax, and jettisons the relatively lighthearted tone of Vol.1.
“Hello. My name is Joe and I am a nymphomaniac”
The whole movie is filled with callbacks to scenes from his earlier movies, which turn the conversation between Joe and Seligman into a conversation between Lars Von Trier and his critics, with many pithy insults thrown Seligman’s way. On a more literal level it is also a critique of today’s youth, and how the “enough is never enough” mentality is warping them to their very core.
The largest problem with “Nymphomaniac” is that after four hours, Lars Von Trier still has to explicitly state his main point, which is that women are, and probably always will be, viewed differently than men in the realm of sexual experience. “You were a woman demanding her right,” Seligman tells Joe, “[and] if a man had led the life you had,then the story would be extremely banal.” With four hours of time to explore his central idea, it’s a shame that Lars Von Trier could not have used his time more effectively.
“I’m not like you, who fucks to feel validated.”
“Nymphomaniac” was pitched as a four hour fuck fest, and while there is loads of sex and nudity, there are few scenes dedicated to sex. NC-17 it may be, but pornography it is not. When sex is on screen, it is also incredibly unerotic, and filmed as something that merely happens between two people. The sexual acts on screen are rather tame as well, with bondage play being the only really hardcore act on screen.
It’s very clear that “Nymphomaniac” has been considerably cut down. Uma Therman, appearing as the wife of a philandering husband, has had her part trimmed the most, which is a shame because it is also the best and funniest vingette in the movie. Connie Nielson and Willem Dafoe have nothing to do in their short scenes, and Christian Slater is on screen just long enough to remind you how terrible an actor he is (and how awful his accents are).
Stacy Martin, as the young Joe, manages to carry Vol.1 entirely on her slight shoulders. She spends much of the film with Shia LaBeouf, who shockingly rises to the occasion and puts in a good performance. Charlotte Gainsbourgh plays the older Joe in Vol.2, after Joe loses her ability to climax. While Charlotte Gainbourgh is not a terrible actress, she keeps the viewer at much more a distance than Stacy Martin does, which lessens the tension as everything comes to a head.
“Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset.”
Viewed back to back in a four hour marathon of despair, what is most impressive about “Nymphomaniac” is that is manages to be captivating throughout, though not compelling. Vol.1 & 2 are both very cold, and the viewer never manages to get inside Joe’s head, even with her constant voice overs. Though this is Lars Von Trier’s most well-intentioned film, it joins many of his other films as an interesting but overall hollow film experience.
My Rating Vol.1: 5.5 out of 10
My Rating Vol.2: 7 out of 10