A collective review of ‘Nymphomaniac’, Lars Von Trier’s exploration of addiction narrated through a series of flashbacks filled with sweat, tears, blood and sperm. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
Order in the Mess
Where does one start with ‘Nymphomaniac’? I guess Lars Von Trier’s character “Joe” (Charlotte Gainsborough & Stacey Martin) herself says: “I found order in the mess.” That is essentially how it felt to watch this brazen foray into sexual exploration and its manifesting effects on such an emotionally challenged woman. What stood out for me is Von Trier’s consistent meticulous reference to metaphor and the beauty of nature; a technique that rightfully or wrongly seemingly justifies the endless on-screen gratuitousness. Comparing her ‘cunt’ to the overly sensitive operation of supermarket doors, or her early attempts at flirtation to the intricate methodology of fly fishing, these and many more somehow convinced me this sinful portrayal of unrelenting, mindless sex was beautiful. His unconventional cinematography once again rose to a new level with his combination of mixed media, cutaways and blatant captions. I am fairly confident I caught glimpses of cameramen in mirrors and slight errors in continuity but nonetheless, all of these unconventional techniques only complimented the integral performances of the ‘Joe’ duo and Stellan Skarsgård as ‘Seligman’. The consistent Von Trier collaborator was magnificent as the innocent, intellectual virgin who has to digest Joe’s extraordinary story of her sexual evolution. Seligman’s own admittance after one particular chapter: “What just happened?” is a thoughtful nod to the likely reactions of many uncomfortable viewers. Uma Thurman deserves recognition for her emotionally delusional cameo as Mrs. H on the verge of divorce, again noting about her scenario: “This could be interesting”. Jerôme, the egotistical male and by technicality, ‘love interest’, is a fantastic concept. Played by the ever enigmatic Shia LeBeouf, did leave me wondering what accent he was trying to attempt.
All in all it is raw, but nonetheless it is unexpectedly hilarious. I cowered at the physical torture, yet chuckled at spoons, cake forks and ‘Silent Ducks’, all of which really did “fill my holes”.
Let’s talk about Sex
Nymphomaniac explores the controversial debate of sexuality as the story revolves around Joe, a self-diagnosed Nymphomaniac who goes through life using her sexuality and discovering the meaning of sexuality recounting her life to Seligman, a self-proclaimed asexual who has learnt life through the arts and literature, therefore exchanging their contrasting life experiences throughout the film.
The film recounts Joe’s erotic experiences into several chapters titled through the prominent characters in her stories or inanimate objects situated in Seligman’s room . The film follows a linear-approach of recounting her life from discovering her sexuality as a child to the damaging result of her sexual life affecting her adult life. Von Trier amusingly uses a mix of titles, super-imposed image and archived footage throughout the two-part film in a comedic manner.
Through the combination of explicit sexual imagery and countless uses of sexual innuendos and tongue-in-cheek dialogue, not only does Lars Von Trier convincingly explore the impact of sex addiction on an individual’s life but also attacks the concept of what sexuality means to those around her. Therefore emphasising how sexuality has become an ultimate driving force in the way society runs today.
This immersive drama film approaches a hot topic of cinema in a tasteful way, combining humour and drama as an entertaining cinema experience overall.
The ‘Nymphomaniac’ couplet is arguably one of von Trier’s best works to date. Von Trier’s films often follow a narrative but bear a mountain of meaning and pragmatic weight behind each scene, this was particularly the case with ‘Nymphomaniac’ as it dealt with a myriad of themes.
From religion, sexuality, eroticism, addiction, existence, nature, psychoanalysis, and causality. His most interesting interpretation was the existence of a universal framework in everything ever created in the modern world. The Fibonacci sequence is utilized by von Trier to signify there is a calculative method of dealing with anything we lay our eyes on. From the formulation of sunflower seeds to the first sexual encounter of the protagonist, the numbers are always there.
Von Trier teaches us that the numbers can be seen as coincidental, a product of chance, but also in a positive or negative fashion, as we discover at the end of the film. The film also teaches us that von Trier, as he did in ‘Dancer in the Dark’, can defy the idea of genre, though the film is highly explicit, including several sado-masochistic scenes, he has equally included several comical responses from Stellan Skarsgard’s character, which means the tone of the film suddenly shatters from the previous shots of cracked and bleeding skin.
The Danish master presents us with a maelstrom of raw essence and humanity; few people could come close to his ‘Nymphomaniacs’.
Forget About Love
As the final chord of his Depression Trilogy Lars von Trier offers an obscene attempt to explore sexuality in two volume ‘Nymphomaniac’, an experimental journey into a woman’s mind of shame and lust. Although von Trier’s twisted ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ can’t say anything new about love or relationships as similarly explicit films ‘In the Realm of the Senses‘ or ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour‘ could, it rather focuses on grotesquely graphic details hoping to shock its audience.
Throughout the chapters of the film the director is able to show a wide range of film styles using realistic and surrealistic, violent and comical elements. Compared to the first two films of the trilogy, ‘Antichrist’ and ‘Melancholia’ his new approach is less allegorical as the actual plot gains importance as the film goes on. After the impressive tales of the death of protagonist Joe’s father and Seligman’s theories on science and arts coming to life as her flashbacks talk about passion, love, betrayal and pain in the stories of Mrs. H and Jerôme (amazing performances from the actors) von Trier seems to get tired or lacks any ideas for the last thirty minutes as an otherwise accurate map of Joe’s life as a nymphomaniac turns into a surreal love triangle melodrama. At the unnecessary climax of Jerôme beating her and her ex-protegee P urinating on her after she has sex with the man which might be built up for shock value, the film seems to stray from the original purpose. Firing Chekhov’s gun – von Trier’s ‘fuck you’ for the viewer – closes the film with the feminist message that all men are bad – quite straightforward for a film this long.
In conclusion, von Trier’s sense of beauty and experimental ambitions tend to be overpowered by his desire to shock, surprise and disgust. Compared to his conscious experimental works like ‘Idiots’ or ‘Dogville’, ‘Nymphomiac’, while entertaining, does not live up to expectations.
An Unconventional Approach to Feminism
‘Nymphomaniac Volume I and II’ are masterful in their study of sex addiction. Central protagonist Joe recounts her story in an attempt to explain how her life catastrophically fell apart and landed her in a position of extreme vulnerability. Through a series of overwhelmingly hedonistic flashbacks – from a threesome with two complete strangers to an orgasm induced through bondage and flogging – Joe starts to be understood by Seligman, the supposedly “asexual” virgin responsible for rescuing her, as a victim of both her own innate desires and society itself.
Based strictly on his understanding of human nature through literature, Seligman concludes that Joe carries a burden of guilt and self-hatred for her actions far greater than is necessary, asserting that men receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist for having numerous sexual partners, committing adultery and abandoning their family in the pursuit of personal satisfaction. However simplistic and naive this point may be considering the other aspects of Joe’s story that may be deemed less acceptable, it still rings true that society’s standards of behaviour for men and women are fundamentally different when examined closely.
‘Nymphomaniac Volume I and II’, submerging to form a narrative that challenges our preconceptions of cinema and life in a distinctively Lars Von Trier fashion, can therefore be described as an exploration of society’s underlying issues of gender inequality through the medium of lust, a subject confronted fearlessly in this controversial piece of art.