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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

"The Little Organ School" and chapter six, "The Easter and the Western Church (The Silent Duck)," which opens the second part of what's really one long film, best represent von Trier's unbridled pleasure at mixing things of the body and things of the mind. This is especially the case after the introduction of K (Jamie Bell), a young but demanding master with a small battery of women (mostly homemakers, it seems), who come to be his slave for a couple of hours per week. They can sign up but they don't know what they're signing up for; that's up to him, and there's no way the women can make him stop doing what he’s decided to do.

Of course, von Trier uses the sequence to address S&M in general but on a more metaphorical level, he's talking about being open to the unknown and its more advanced sister, perfect abandon, concepts that help people achieve great heights in both sex and in life — though not without some risk.

Joe ends up at K’s because she needs to learn to let herself go again. After having settled down with Jerome and having a baby with him called Marcel — no-doubt after Marcel Proust, whose "In Search of Lost Time" is one of the obvious literary influences aside from name-checked works such as "The Decameron" and "1001 Nights" — Joe loses the capacity to orgasm. 

An interlude with two African brothers, whom she summons to have sex with her but who don't speak English and get into a fight buck naked, as well as a restaurant scene that features von Trier regular Udo Kier as a waiter, form the comic highlights of the story. Both arrive during the sixth chapter, which is as narratively nimble as chapter five and as brimming with ideas. Together, the two chapters represent the core of the film. Everything leading up to that point is an elaborate and spunky set-up (chapters one through three) or filler (chapter four, which juxtaposes sex and death in a not very original way in clichéd black and white imagery). But chapters five and six make up for all the weaknesses or arty longueurs preceding them.

"Organ" and "Church," so to say, are the highlights or sustained climax of the film -- with chapters seven and eight, in which Joe goes to a sex-addict group and becomes a debt collector for a very shady character (Willem Dafoe), respectively, feeling like concessions to the film's linear and symmetrical narrative structure. They reflect a pressure to wrap things up while throwing in a couple more sexual oddities — notably a passive pedophile (Jean-Marc Barr), which gives von Trier the possibility to insert this no-doubt controversial line of dialog: "Pedophiles who don't act on their desire deserve a bloody medal."

In some passages, it's almost as though von Trier is directly addressing his critics: A few exchanges about Seligman's Jewishness as well as one involving the need for politically correct terms so words such as "niggers" can be avoided never quite find an organic way into the text; instead, they call to mind his infamous "Nazi" comments at a Cannes press conference. Rather than letting his characters speak, it's clear that von Trier is simply trying to stir the pot, something that a film containing so much interesting material doesn't really need.

The ending also suffers from pressure to go out with too much of a bang -- though thankfully, it's not how things conclude but the rapport between Joe and Seligman that lingers as a staging of the eternal battle between mind and body.

After two earlier films with von Trier, "Antichrist" and "Melancholia," this third collaboration represents Charlotte Gainsbourg's most fearless and also finest hour as she carries the film with ease. To say her character isn't easy to love would be an understatement, but Gainsbourg manages to turn Joe into more than just a mouthpiece of von Trier's ideas. She's a living, breathing human being who perhaps lacks the intellectual understanding to analyze what she's doing or why she's doing it -- but whose will to live makes her forge ahead no matter what.

Criticwire Grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening Christmas Day in Denmark, the film should find a welcome audience in its home country. Magnolia will release "Nymphomaniac" on VOD and theaters in March and April. Undoubtedly set to perform well in its immediate release, the film's long-term prospects will rely on whether early word-of-mouth is strong or if audiences will feel let down in their hopes for a more graphic experience.

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  • 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.