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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

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?"


  • 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 its from Nowvideo , quality its a bit low but good , enjoy ;)

  • thuard64 | December 19, 2013 7:27 AMReply

    ilike it

  • | 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.....

  • 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.