Nymphomaniac (or NYMPH( )MANIAC, as it has been styled) is a four hour long erotic drama from writer and director Lars Von Trier that retrospectively details the life of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self professed sex addict. Presumably for the sake of cinema scheduling and the sanity of an audience, the film has followed in the foot steps of pictures like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and been split in to two much more palatable volumes. My interest in seeing Nymphomaniac stemmed from a curiosity with regards to the taboo of the subject matter, and the fact that such well known actors such as Gainsbourg, Uma Thurman, Stellan Skarsgard and the ever annoying Shia LeBeouf were involved in the project. Von Trier has reportedly stated that this picture is to be his last, would the controversial filmmaker go out with a bang? Pun absolutely intended.
As the two separate volumes were originally intended to be a single lengthy picture, it will be easier to address them as such and therefore the expansive story covers the unconventional life of Joe from roughly the age of ten or eleven all the way through to her late forties or early fifties. Found beaten and lying in the gutter by Seligman (Skarsgard), Joe is taken in by the seemingly kind hearted man and proceeds to tell him her story over the course of the night, fuelled by tea and cake. The audience are guided through a series of set pieces documenting Joe’s sexual progression, from the loss of her virginity to a multiple partnered evening on a train to the comfortable schedule of between eight to ten lovers a day that she becomes accustomed to in her twenties. From the copious amounts of publicity that the film received, I expected to witness scenes that served no other purpose than to exploit the female form, but in perspective, I have seen equally as graphic sequences in a film like Stranger By The Lake. There is a definite switch in tone at the point that the film was split in to two volumes, with the theme of self-hate on Joe’s part becoming much more prevalent as the flashbacks of her life being to take on a much more sinister and at times upsetting context, such as the difficulties she experiences with regard to her maternal instincts and a foray in to the world of sadomasochism when she temporarily loses her capacity for sexual sensation. Though clearly longer than most motion pictures, I must say that the fours hours I spent watching Nymphomaniac felt much shorter than any number of duller, shorter films I have ever had the misfortune of watching, and what I assumed was going to be a curiosity filled but ultimately exploitative and unnecessary watch turned out to be a piece of cinema that I thoroughly enjoyed. Underneath the surface of skin and sex is a message about the helplessness a woman can feel when put up against the gendered social standards of society. An interesting conversation takes place in which the audience are encouraged to imagine the impact of the story had Joe been a man rather than a woman, and the impact of the thought is really quite affecting. Not forgetting its need to satisfy the convention of the cinematic story arc, the film also comes to a tragic and depressingly inevitable conclusion that will leave you questioning humanity and its real capacity for kindness and understanding with regard to a subject like female promiscuity.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is endlessly engaging in the present day lead role, as is Stacy Martin who plays her younger version in the the majority of scenes depicting the past. Both women possess the sort of raw allure that was certainly needed for a character like Joe, and the aesthetic transition between the two actresses when the time came was not as bothersome as it could have been. Stellan Skarsgard keeps his cards close to his chest as the reserved gentleman who takes care of Joe throughout the present day narrative, walking that fine line between likeable and suspicious that keep the audience on their toes with regards to his ambitions. The one blaring criticism I have is in the performance of Shia LaBeouf as Joe’s lover Jerome. LaBeouf’s atrocious attempt at a British accent is arguably the worst I have ever heard, ranging from American to Dutch to Australian without any hint of trying to stay on track at all. Along with this is his rather mediocre acting skills, something the man is clearly aware given his recent publicity stunts in order to stay in the press. I have never been a fan of his and would be more than happy never to have to watch him again. There are far too many actors involved in the two parter to pass comment on every single performance, but there were a select few aside from the handful of leading parts that merit individual discussion, most notably Uma Thurman as Mrs. H, the distraught wife of one of Joe’s companions who turns up at her door and produces one of the most memorable scenes in the entire film. Mia Goth as P, Joe’s only depicted female lover brings a much needed jolt of energy at a point in which the running time begins to take its tole in the viewer, and though only a brief part, her turn results in one of the more memorable supporting roles.
Overall, once you get past the hullabaloo and media outrage of the sexual content, Nymphomaniac is truly a very interesting and engaging work of cinema. Of course, Lars Von Trier has been incredibly over indulgent with the total length of the picture, no film ever needs to four hours long, there are certainly entire chunks of narrative that could have been sacrificed with little damage to the plot, but it is testament to my enjoyment of the picture that I did not mind spending that much time in the company of the protagonist that he created. I feel that it may be one of those films that offers something new and different with each viewing, and though it certainly cannot be seen as any sort of gimmick, I do not envision myself committing to watch it again any time soon.