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Film Review: Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II

April 10, 2014

Nymphomaniac Vol 1 ReviewEarly on in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, opening in two parts today at the Charles Theatre, my wife said: “Maybe we can have sex after this movie about sex.” Four hours later, when the credits finally rolled, she said, “I don’t think I ever want to have sex again.”

So, thanks for that Lars.

And, man, was it a long movie. It’s odd to carp on a movie for being four hours long in the days when we will regularly spend a weekend watching a television season for 13 hours.  Likewise, a complaint about Nymphomaniac‘s violence seems invalid—or at least directed mainly at Von Triers himself. This morning at work, for instance, a friend asked “How many women were abused?” in the movie, right after talking about True Detective, which was mostly about violence towards women and children, and which he loved.

All of which is to say how difficult it is to write something about Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (or Nymph()maniac, to follow Von Trier’s vulvic typography) that doesn’t touch upon all sorts of other shit floating around in our culture, including the ubiquity of porn, the aestheticization of violence, and Von Trier’s own previous films and his scandalous remarks.

Nevertheless, I am going to try. Because the movie is actually pretty fucking brilliant. The frame tale—in which an erudite, asexual man (the excellent Stellen Skarsgard) finds an unconscious Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying on the ground and brings her to his apartment, where she tells her story of nymphomania and he digresses on literature or fly fishing—presents one of the best conversations in recent memory, doing something far older than the cinema and hearkening back to Chaucer, Boccaccio, and 1,001 Nights, all of which are directly mentioned in the course of this long discussion.

The setup is such that Joe is able to tell her story, and rather than judging her (something the viewer is all too apt to do, especially when Joe leaves her son alone for a BDSM assignation), Skarsgard’s character elaborates and contextualizes, taking the tale out of the gutter and elevating it to a human but not societal level.

The fact that he philosophizes, rather than psychoanalyzes, her actions is the best thing in the movie. Even when she offers an origin story of her nymphomania—a spontaneous orgasm which doctors called epilepsy—he interprets it in a theological context.

That scene comes at the very beginning of Vol. II and in many ways symbolizes the much weaker nature of the second volume of the film. When the first ends, we are enthralled and want more. But we quickly wish we hadn’t. By the time Joe’s clitoris is bleeding, the viewer feels uncomfortably numb.

But despite the fact that Joe narrates the story, it is almost impossible to imagine this tale coming from an actual woman’s mind. Not that there aren’t women sex addicts, but the film is defined by the fact that sex is always a rare and limited resource for men. From a very early scene in which the young Joe (played with a wide-eyed detachment by Stacy Martin) and her friend have a contest to see who can sleep with the most men on a train, the film marvels at the fact that a woman can, essentially, sleep with as many people as she likes, while a man is limited both by performance and possibility. One man on the train refuses the two girls because he is on the way home to try to impregnate his wife. But still, when Joe starts to suck him off, he cannot refuse. The whole film has the perspective of a hunter-gatherer walking through a grocery store—at first one is amazed, and shortly one is sick, glutted, and yet still not satisfied.

But the overarching tension between the seeming playfulness and warmth of conversation and the cold, detached desperation of sex makes the film successful—if far from pleasant.