Nymphomaniac – Volumes I and II (dir: Lars von Trier)

Posted: March 5, 2014 in Drama, English language, New releases
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Mainstream movies about sex always raise questions as to whether they are titillating, pornographic, exploitative, or misogynistic, and with increasingly explicit scenes in recent movies those questions are even more salient. So, given Lars von Trier’s reputation as a provocateur it was with some trepidation that I approached Nymphomaniac. In the event, the story of Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) sex addiction started out pretty grim and then proceeded to get worse. I wouldn’t dare to predict other viewers’ responses, but there was nothing here that struck me as particularly titillating.

Volume 1 begins when Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers Joe, beaten up and lying in an alley. She won’t let him call an ambulance or the police, so he takes her home. There, she tells Seligman her life story. This begins with a teenage Joe (Stacy Martin) asking a young man, Jerôme (Shia La Beouf), if he would be willing to take her virginity, which he does. Not long afterwards, Joe and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) take a train journey, the sole purpose of which is to see who can have sex with the most male passengers before they reach their destination. Back in their home town, the two of them determine to have meaningless sex with as many men as possible, but never more than once with the same man. The joint venture eventually ends when B commits the sin of falling in love, but by now Joe is in the early grip of her sex addiction.

Seligman proves to be a surprisingly non-judgmental listener, as Joe’s unfolding story starts to include examples of the hurt she has caused to others. Indeed the cultured Seligman chips in at intervals, comparing the episodes from Joe’s life to examples from science, art, and literature.

There is no real ending to Volume 1, except to provide us with a kind of cliffhanger that leaves us wanting to see Volume 2. In the second film Joe continues to tell her story in flashback, whereby she pursues even more extreme erotic interactions to satisfy her sex addiction, with disturbing consequences.

I had somewhat mixed reactions to Nymphomaniac. At various points I did wonder if matters were getting just a little bit silly, but nonetheless I still found it quite compelling. Partly this was out of a desire to find out just where the story was going to go, especially as Volume 1 begins with Joe’s rescue. But also the film grabbed my attention because of the compelling performances by Gainsbourg and Skarsgård, as well as by Hollywood stars such as Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, and Uma Thurman. The latter in particular has a wonderful cameo as a wronged woman dragging her children round to Joe’s flat, where she insists on showing them “the whoring bed”.

I also was a little mystified about the criticism that Shia LaBeouf’s performance has received. To be sure, he wasn’t the standout performer here, but his much-derided accent was not as bad as I had been led to expect. Various reviewers have described his accent as the worst cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke. Maybe I just have a tin ear (though I am a Londoner and can “do” cockney), but LaBeouf’s accent struck me as rather impossible to place – if anything, it seemed a gentle combination of Irish and London. It certainly didn’t disrupt the film for me in any way.

As to where it all leads, there is a twist in the tale (of sorts), but to some extent it does seem to turn Nymphomaniac into a bit of a shaggy dog story. However, we are provided with some dark entertainment along the way.

Rating: 8/10

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