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Review: 'Nymphomaniac' Is Lars von Trier's Epic Attempt at a Sex-With-Brains Magnum Opus

By Boyd van Hoeij | Indiewire December 17, 2013 at 8:00AM

Lars von Trier's magnum opus bidding "Nymphomaniac" opens Christmas Day in Denmark before hitting VOD and theaters stateside in March and April.
Shia Labeouf and Stacy Martin in "Nymphomaniac."
Shia Labeouf and Stacy Martin in "Nymphomaniac."

Of course, the love/sex dichotomy is fertile territory for any film. Soon enough, Jerôme is back in the picture and Joe must to deal with the possibility that she might want to be with him again. It’s almost shocking to discover Jerôme might be the love of Joe's life — especially because this means sitting through a lot more of LaBeouf's toe-curling acting, which is so noticeably different from the generally laid-back Euro arthouse vibe of most of the ensemble that it stands out like a sore thumb. Jerôme's described as the "image of careless elegance," but instead of careless yet elegant the performance feels awkward and stunted underneath a veneer of Hollywood-style grandstanding. (The film’s entire fourth chapter, dedicated to the hospitalization of Joe's father, played by Slater, suffers from similar problems.)

What resonates most about "Nymphomaniac" are the (thankfully numerous) scenes between Joe and Seligman. Without their back-and-forth discussions about Joe's life, the film might indeed amount to little else than a long list of sexual exploits. Instead, they place Joe's behavior in larger socio-political, historical and emotional contexts, with Seligman drawing on a life of reading and encyclopedic knowledge that no doubt stems from von Trier's own wide-ranging interests, even though a battery of researchers are listed in the credits.

Immediately after the death of her father, Joe is surprised to find herself wet between the legs.

The film's most delirious example of how the body and the intellect work together, and how this can be translated into film language, lies in the fifth chapter, titled "The Little Organ School." Immediately after the death of her father, Joe is surprised to find herself wet between the legs, though Seligman explains that it is "common to react sexually to crisis."

Their conversation then turns to her experiences with seven or eight lovers per night in the wake of her father's death and how three of those lovers -- F (Nicolas Bro), G (Christian Gade Bjerrum) and J(erôme) -- stood out, each for a different reason. Yet together these trysts create a polyphony, as seen in the divine music Bach and Palestrina, combining into a harmonious sound.

Joe and Seligman's discussions about these experiences extend beyond what she got out of her relationships and instead focus on how they correspond to certain ideas in not only classical music but also mathematical concepts such as the Fibonacci sequence. These conversations form a delightful intellectual spiel that’s quite a wonder to behold, suggesting there may be some kind of higher logic and reason at work behind what outsiders might simply describe as slutty behavior.

By using music and split-screen in this sequence, as well as archival footage of animals and material specifically shot for the film, one senses both the childlike glee of von Trier as a filmmaker in full command of all the possibilities that his film has to offer and his interest in thinking things through. At its best, the film doesn't strain for meaning but instead treats all of its intellectualizing as a lark that can be taken seriously but doesn't need to be.

However, perhaps it’s best to bear in mind this line of dialog, also from chapter five and uttered by Joe: "How do you think you'll get the most out of the story -- by believing or not believing in it?"

This article is related to: Reviews, Nymphomaniac: Volume I, Lars von Trier, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Danish, Sexuality, Shia LaBeouf, Udo Kier, Willem Dafoe, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Stellan Skarsgård

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