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Reviews

Nymphomaniac

Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Lars Von Trier
Volume I, Cert 18, 117 mins, Volume II, Cert 18, 123 mins

From The Element of Crime to Melancholia, Lars Von Trier has variously delighted, mesmerised and bored. Yet, his films make essential viewing. As provocative as anything in the Von Trier canon, Nymphomaniac at one point transcendentally cuts from closed vaginal lips to opening eyelids. (Volume I's poster image is a typographical equivalent, two brackets enlarged to poster size. I'll never see brackets quite the same way again.)

Eponymous nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found beaten up in an alleyway by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who in good Samaritan fashion takes her home to his austere lodging to provide food and shelter. She wants to tell him her story, but does not know where to begin until she sees a fly fishing hook hanging on his wall. She then relates, in considerable erotic detail, the story of her life, which traverses many one-off sexual partners, a few regular partners at one stage of her life, and her first love - or more accurately conquest - Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) to whom she keeps returning only to leave again. Seligman punctuates her narration with observations culled from subjects as diverse as fly-fishing, maths and the structure of Bach's music.

As in Cronenberg's notorious Crash, the physical detail of sexual positions and perversions is used as a narrative tool to develop character. Crash, not this film, is the real watershed work. But where Crash can be read as science- fiction ('the new flesh'), no such distancing device exists in Nymphomaniac's narrative, which explores drama and psychology through sex. It's compelling stuff, too, from Joe's teenage competition with her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) where each tries to have sex with the most men during the course of a railway journey, through the collapse of her relationship with Jerôme via her submissive relationship with sadist K (Jamie Bell) to her final role exploiting her considerable sexual experience as a professional debt collector. In terms of female body parts, there's little on screen that hasn't been there before in mainstream cinema (unless you include verbal description and considerable use of the c-word). Male body parts are something else altogether; numerous penises are seen in this film in various stages of arousal which you couldn't cut from the film without severely mutilating its content and meaning.

'Forget about love', says the film's strap-line. Comparison with last year's French lesbian romance Blue Is The Warmest Colour is instructive. That film, also highly explicit, remains one of the most moving and human explorations of a human sexual relationship ever seen on the screen. Nymphomaniac is much more selfish, its heroine attempting less to form relationships than to sate carnal desire. At one point in the narrative, juggling multiple partners, she even develops a system for randomly encouraging/discouraging further advances from each one. Narrating her past, Joe refers to herself as a 'bad person' only to be upbraided for that remark by Seligman. Towards the close of Volume II, he tells her that if she were a man recounting similar stories, no-one would bat an eyelid. The reason she feels ground down by society is not so much her behaviour but that she's female. Von Trier has long been a controversial director of women, giving actresses ground-breaking roles but ones in which they tend to suffer badly (as do the men, often). Whether these feminist credentials and concerns are genuine is ultimately up to the viewer to decide.