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by Boyd van Hoeij
December 17, 2013 8:00 AM
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Review: 'Nymphomaniac' Is Lars von Trier's Epic Attempt at a Sex-With-Brains Magnum Opus

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac."

Lars von Trier's latest film, "Nymphomaniac," which unfolds in two-parts across four hours in its current edit, is nothing less than the director's bid to make his magnum opus.

While 90 minutes shorter than the version von Trier himself has made (rather than the "abridged and censored" version that hits Danish theaters Christmas Day ahead of its 2014 U.S. release), as it stands, "Nymphomaniac" is indeed a major work that tries and, to a large extent, succeeds to organically synthesize the world, ideas and filmmaking savvy of von Trier in one sprawling and ambitious cinematic fable. Somewhat shockingly given the subject matter, the most stimulating material in "Nymphomaniac" isn't the explicit sex but how sexuality is discussed and understood.

This being a von Trier film, there’s a good deal of humor, too. The director's script includes plenty of inventive sexual inquiry, including a monologue that compares the hunt for sex to fly-fishing and a lengthy discussion of how sexual pain compares to the divide between the Western and the Eastern Church.

The nymphomaniac of the title is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose life is chronicled for about four decades or so and who narrates her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), an asexual intellectual who's all mind where Joe, the nymphomaniac, is all body. Seligman, a secular Jew, has literally picked her off the pavement, where he found her bloodied and almost unconscious. He's worried about her and wants to call an ambulance, though she insists that's not necessary and that she’s a "bad human being" and it's all her fault. Seligman finds this hard to believe. The story of how she got there encompasses almost her entire life, seen in long flashbacks.

The film is divided into eight chapters. Except for the framing device, Joe's life is mostly told chronologically, from the first time she can remember experiencing erotic pleasure at age seven (with Joe played by Maja Arsovic) on the bathroom floor with her best friend, B (Sofie Kasten), to the tingling sensation she received from a rope between her legs during a primary school gym class. The latter incident is illustrated with a simple yet very effective shot of a the end of a thick rope slightly moving above the floor, suggesting Joe’s somewhere off-screen -- further up.

It's that kind of effective restraint that eases the viewer into Joe’s increasingly more adult world. By the age of 15 (played by impressive newcomer Stacy Martin), she’s a vampish Lolita in a cardigan, plaid skirt and ruby slippers who orders a biker kid with strong hands named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) to take her virginity -- which he does, in a couple of pointedly calculated thrusts (eight, to be exact, mirroring the number of chapters that make up the movie's story).

Flashbacks to her life with her nagging mother (Connie Nielsen) and more sensitive father (Christian Slater), who's got a thing for trees (hello Freud!), establish that Joe's more tuned into her senses than most people. In short, she's the perfect foil for Seligman, who's all knowledge and no experience -- and thus represents the polar opposite of Joe, who's got no clue about books and famous writers (except in one egregious scene) but excels as an expert at men, copulation and more generally living through her body.

READ MORE: Selling Lars Von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac'

The latter ability is mainly thanks to the teenage B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), who leads a club of young girls who make a deal to have sex with each man only once, as a form of rebellion against love. "Love is the secret ingredient of sex," suggests one of the girls who dares to rebel against the rebels. For Joe, however, "Love is sex with jealousy added," a philosophy that'll make a nymphomaniac of her as she doesn't want to hang on to any man, ever.

Interestingly, at least in this version, most of the sex is relatively tame, with barely any penetration on screen. Even so, "Nymphomaniac" certainly contains more penises, in various states of arousal, than any recent narrative film outside of pornography (actual sex scenes were performed by porn doubles whose heads were then seamlessly replaced in post-production by the heads of the actors).

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18 Comments

  • MB | March 24, 2014 7:38 PMReply

    This is an asinine attempt at analysis, just like all of the other essays on the film I've read so far.

  • David | March 16, 2014 3:40 AMReply

    I don't really have much further to comment, though I felt a deep connexion with the film (for personal reasons).
    I find it hard to believe that the name of the baby would be a reference to Marcel Proust, even though one may immediately think of "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" when focusing on the narrative style of the entire film, but undoubtedly such language of storytelling has become, to say the least, a quite common place, and it would feel pretentious to assume that reference. I also thought that the way Joe defends her posture of being against "politically correct" ways of speech is indeed pertinent to the story. For when she goes to her therapy group, she takes pride in being a nymphomaniac (There is no need for a stupid euphemism, after all. To say "sex addict" is to assume one can change their sexuality, and anyone experiencing an uncommon sexual tendency knows how impossible it is to change it, how impossible it is to define oneself whilst disregarding sexuality, as Freud would say). I'm not saying this film is perfect. There are quite a few forced dialogues, particularly from Seligman, and I wasn't very convinced of the in media res structure once I started the film, but Von Trier managed to handle it very well throughout the story, delivering this strange finale. Which is (the way I see it) as if he'd wanted to get rid of any perhaps pretended sentimentality or moralizing closure: There is no redemption to human nature. I'm not sure where "Nymphomaniac" figures among Lars Von Trier's works, but I am very satisfied with it, and it's a poetically rich movie that I'd definitely watch again.

  • Adam | March 10, 2014 4:16 AMReply

    The review has it right, but is far too kind to von Trier and the film. The truth is the film is equal parts complete s**t and pure brilliance, which probably equals a mediocre film. Some segments work so well that they keeping you thinking about them long after, but they also inadvertently make you forget about some of the worst filmmaking I've seen so far this year. This review is basically a synopsis, with little personal thought. I'm guessing he's too afraid to criticize the "auteur" in fears of being labeled a philistine. The grandest of von Trier's "depression trilogy", but also the weakest and least coherent film by far.

  • juana | December 29, 2013 7:56 PMReply

    This ain't no review. Get a point of view!

  • dante | December 27, 2013 1:55 PMReply

    s a great movie , i have watched it on cinema and i enjoyed so much , also when i turned back at home i was watchin with my wife lol , here is the blog http://goo.gl/aymp2J its from Nowvideo , quality its a bit low but good , enjoy ;)

  • thuard64 | December 19, 2013 7:27 AMReply

    ilike it

  • ljennifer442@yahoo.com | December 18, 2013 2:24 PMReply

    my buddy's mother-in-law makes $83/hour on the computer. She has been laid off for 7 months but last month her pay was $17954 just working on the computer for a few hours. read this.....http://7.ly/dkZm

  • Dennis | December 17, 2013 5:01 PMReply

    It's odd that this and other reviews so far seem to express surprise that the movie isn't "sexy." Uh...von Trier has always been just about the most anti-sex filmmaker imaginable. When sex does happen in his movies, it's usually the violent rape of an innocent or something else morally damning (like the selfish parents copulating in "Antichrist," oblivious to their baby toddling close to an open high-rise window). The guy may love shock value, but deep down he's a prude.

  • Gerard Kennelly | December 17, 2013 4:46 PMReply

    DogVille is a masterpiece

  • owna | December 17, 2013 4:32 PMReply

    There was no stunt cocks or doubles for the sex

  • james | December 17, 2013 4:12 PMReply

    there's a difference between a review and a summary, jesus.

  • agree w lee | December 17, 2013 2:49 PMReply

    Yeah agreed, far too much synopsis.

  • lee | December 17, 2013 12:19 PMReply

    Far too much synopsis in this review.

  • MullenItOver | December 17, 2013 11:14 AMReply

    Am I right in thinking that there are three versions of the film? The Danish version, Magnolia's, and von Trier's?

  • anon | December 17, 2013 10:27 AMReply

    From what I've read, that's not accurate. The actors performed the sex acts and were asked to sign disclosures when reading the script that they would do it.

  • Adam | March 10, 2014 3:55 AM

    That's old stuff. Lars wanted to do that, but I'm guessing no one was willing to go along with it because it didn't happen. He used porn actors, prosthetics, and CGI.

  • Lulu | December 17, 2013 9:03 AMReply

    Great analysis. Thank you. I would see it.

  • Ahsoka23 | December 18, 2013 3:33 AM

    Same here. I really want to see this movie. Charlotte Gainsbourg is a great actress.