Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin
Review by: Julian Wright
Seeing both volumes of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga back to back is quite an experience. While probably not his preferred way for audiences to see his work (there is a 5.5 hour full version floating around), chopped in half with footage removed was the closest we got in its theatrical release. Wishing to see the closest thing to von Trier’s vision, I buckled in for the full ride (there was an option to view the second volume another day).
I am still torn by this decision. Having underestimated how thought-provoking it would be, both volumes viewed in such close proximity was mentally exhausting. Two two hour-films felt like a full day of movie marathoning. A 10-minute intermission was far too little time to absorb the events and themes of volume I before heading back in to experience volume II. However, had I opted for a next day viewing of the second part I would have felt like I was cheating. Maybe I should have just re-thought seeing them on Friday night after a long work week.
The weight of what goes on and what is explored in von Trier’s flashback filled story of the experiences of self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Joe (played at different ages by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg) is fascinating, fulfilling, overwhelming and challenging. The first half begins with a beaten Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) being found in an alleyway by soft-spoken and academically minded good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Seligman takes her back to his small apartment to care for her and the pair proceed to exchange tales, her life experiences that got her to this point of physical abuse and him, metaphors that mirror her stories.
She tells of losing her virginity to a no-hoper Jerome (Shia LeBouf) and later in life the power struggle between them when she ends up working for him, the sexual tally game she would play with her friend, in which whoever slept with the most men on a train ride won a bag of chocolates (this is where Seligman’s unusual, yet fitting fly fishing metaphor comes) and her relationship with her father.
Her sexual encounters range from the brief, to daring to awkward. One of her regulars, a married man with kids, rocks up on her doorstep one day with a packed bag wanting to move in with her. Uma Thurman offers a stunning performance and a major highlight in the four-hour running time as his wife, who follows on his heels with their children to tour them through the location of his infidelities.
Joe’s obsession takes dramatic turns as she dabbles in experimentation: a pair of well-hung, non-English speaking African men who quarrel about how they will have sex with her in a hastily organised threesome and underground meetings with a mysterious man (Jamie Bell) with a penchant for the violent of domineering style of kink. Some of her actions may be to the detriment of the health and safety of those close to her.
Less interested in shocking his audience with audacious twists or imagery, von Trier’s hyped up sex scenes were (at least in this version) frank and at time graphic, yet maturely handled in a non-sensationalist way. Close ups and montages of genitalia, whether in a state of arousal or not, have a textbook feeling to them. It feels more like school sex education footage than pornography. Despite all the thrusting, pumping and heavy breathing, and there is quite a bit of it, these are some of the most un-titillating portrayals of sexual intercourse, which perfectly reflect the character’s state of mind and attitude towards sex. For Joe, these encounters are experiments, an urge fulfillment.
Perhaps it was the fatigue setting in but the second half, which deepened Joe’s psychology and raised the stakes (she goes to irresponsible lengths to “get it on”) was surprisingly emotionally aloof. When we should be feeling a deeper connection to this complex individual, I felt at arm’s length. At times, I felt that I should be feeling devastation, some sort of gut punch. Yet, I did not. However, it did not impede my appreciation and even enjoyment of this exploration of themes and ideas that are rarely tackled. This is one rare occasion in which I am keen to see the deleted scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.