Nymphomaniac – Movie Review
My level of satisfaction with a given thing has a lot to do with my expectations. Movies I have little or no expectation for can be pleasant surprises, and over-hyped movies can become a letdown. Had I known nothing about Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, an epic movie cut down from an original five hour cut into two volumes (each under two hours) I probably would have liked it more. I think the movie has some definite flaws (particularly the final scene of Vol. II) but is otherwise well made and thought-provoking. In other words, it’s good art.
My goal is not to spoil the movie but to reset your expectation and potentially increase your enjoyment of the film. The marketing campaign and controversy surrounding the film are a serious problem as they don’t match up with what the film is. There are posters for all the main characters in the movie, shot naked with an orgasmic expression on their faces. With the title and even some of the trailers, the marketing seems to be saying that we will see all of these characters fully nude, probably with the titular nymphomaniac herself, Joe. We don’t see this – some of the characters are never shown undressed, let alone having sex.
Worse is the (eventually quashed) rumor that the stars had real sex for the film and did not use body doubles – and that the scenes in question are pornography. They use body doubles, and in the version showing unrated on Amazon there is very little that comes close to being pornographic – even out of context. Yes, there are some quick shots of penetration and the camera lingers on an erection or two (which is probably enough to get an NC-17 in the US) but it is not gratuitous or erotic.
The movie centers around Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg as an older adult, and by Stacy Martin as a young adult. Gainsbourg’s older Joe is rescued by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) as the movie begins, and the rest of the movie is framed by them as she recovers in his home and she tells him the long story of how she came to be beaten and left in the street. These framing scenes between Gainsbourg’s Joe and Seligman are the philosophical half of the movie, with Seligman often drawing metaphors and parallels between something Joe tells him and something completely unrelated to sex. He makes these connections as if he’s trying to pull deeper meaning from Joe’s story – and this would come across as pretentiousness, as if the movie were trying to force you to think of it as wildly intellectual – if Joe didn’t consistently dress him down for making connections where there are none.
Joe comes to realize that she’s not a sex addict, she’s a “nymphomaniac” which she goes out of her way to explain in the film at a meeting of Sex Addicts Anonymous. Her definition is that she’s someone who likes her body and likes her “dirty filthy lust.”
Whether everything she tells Seligman is true or not, Joe’s journey has some fascinating implications. In an early scene where she and a friend make a bet to see who can sleep with the most men on a long train journey we see a mirror held up to our culture’s double-standard. This sort of wager would get completely different attention if it were two men on a sexual conquest, yet with women it’s a completely different story. The movie hints a deeper meanings too, some of which are red herrings. This does a great job of keeping the viewer very attentive to what’s going on, trying to solve mysteries that may or may not be there.
All of the performances are wonderful, particularly Stacy Martin as young Joe pulling off a totally believable segue into becoming Charlotte Gainsbourg’s version. You believe they are the same person at different ages. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the change of Jerôme played mostly by Shia LeBeouf with Old Jerôme played by Michael Pas. This doesn’t work because Michael Pas has almost no screen time, particularly when he’s introduced we only see him for a split-second in Jerôme’s home and it isn’t clear that it’s meant to be the same character. LeBeouf does great work with Martin’s Joe and Gainsbourg’s Joe, so it’s even more bizarre that they chose to replace him as an older man. It’s possible that this makes more sense in the original director’s cut, but it was very confusing as presented here.
I won’t spoil what happens, but I must say that the final scene of Vol II. really bothered me as it seemed completely out of place for what the preceding hours of character development said. It felt out of place and did not live up to the standard of the rest of the movie.
But “where’s LeBouf” and the final scene aside, I recommend checking out the film. It’s unlikely to get much of a theatrical release, but Vol. I is currently available for streaming rental on Amazon, and the availability bar at the bottom of the review will show you your renting/purchasing/ streaming options. I should also mention that Von Trier’s previous film, 2011’s Melancholia is free on both Netflix and Amazon Prime and is also a very good movie.