Original Title: Nymphomaniac
Year of Release: 2013
Genres: Drama; Erotic; Art House
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Main Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Mia Goth, Willem Dafoe, Uma Thurman
[CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS]
First of all: why did I watch this film? Well, there’s two reasons. The first is curiosity: ever since its controversial marketing campaign in 2013, I was curious to know what this film was actually about (even back then I knew everyone who called this a porn film hadn’t actually seen it). Second, this year at the Venice Film Festival I bumped into Stacy Martin around 5 different times, and also met and took a picture with the wonderful Willem Dafoe, so I felt obligated to watch the actress’ acting debut.
Let’s address the sex and marketing campaign. Yes, there is unsimulated sex in the film. Yes, there are some gratuitous penetration shots (the shorter version doesn’t feature them). No, this is not a porn film just because of that. The marketing campaign with the orgasm posters was kind of brilliant, making the uproar funnier than the posters themselves.
With Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier directly addressed something that is weirdly taboo in our society: sex. Everyone has had a sexual experience one way or another, sooner or later: masturbation, loss of virginity, sexual curiosity, fetishes, love… It is something that is inherently human, yet talking about it or showing it on screen is seen as depraved and insensible. By making a film that isn’t afraid to talk about different aspects of sex, as well as showing full frontal nudity of both men and women in graphic detail, von Trier tries to make something that many hide into a rather routine aspect. After the second erect penis and sex scene (which, by the way, are fewer and shorter in length than I expected), you get accustomed to them and the “shock” disappears. Everyone has those features, (mostly) everyone does this, so there is no need for shame.
Another aspect that was quite compelling is the character of Joe (played by a young Stacy Martin and an older Charlotte Gainsbourg, who deliver excellent performances, as does the rest of the cast). A self-proclaimed nymphomaniac, her journey is as intriguing as it is sad. In the first volume you see a woman who is so much focused on satisfying herself, that she purposefully avoids falling in love, instead spending her days sleeping with different people. However, her emotions take a hold of her, and as soon as she falls in love with Jerome (LaBeouf), she doesn’t find pleasure in sex. As stated in the film, “The secret ingredient to sex is love”, yet Joe despise her emotions, and in the second part of the story she goes to extreme lengths to find pleasure, only to get beaten and battered mostly by herself.
The story is bordering on a redemption tale, with Skarsgård’s Seligman almost playing the role of priest, listening to Joe’s confessions and trying to comfort her. His is a controversial character, mainly because he is portrayed as pure, a 60-something virgin with a passion for art and literature. He is almost the embodiment of the audience, seemingly innocent, but that at the end is shown for who they really are. He may have called himself an asexual being, but even he can’t put aside his sexual desires. The ending has been interpreted in many ways, some loving it and others hating it. To me, I see a man who finally sees the opportunity to do something that he has never, with a child-like ingenuity and smile, disregarding the growth of Joe as a human being. The final sentence “But you’ve fucked thousands of men” put a sad smile on my face: it is a type of sentence that I have heard many utter during day-to-day life. A woman who is open sexually as Joe is treated by men (and seen by women) as nothing more than a whore and sex-object rather than someone with feelings, therefore what difference does fucking one more man?
It is almost as if Nymphomaniac is trying to find motivations for all kinds of socially-abhorrent behavior. On the surface, some might even see this film as a justification for things such as abortion, nymphomania, sadomasochism, and pedophilia. However, rather than justifying those things, a bigger focus is put on giving explanations as to what brings people to act in such ways. The scene where Joe explains the pedophile’s condition is quite disturbing, but also with plenty of truth to it. In a society where even the smallest thing that doesn’t adhere to everyone’s perception of “normal” is seen as inhuman and wrong, everyone has to hide their deepest desires, sometimes even from ourselves. It is a strong statement, and one that I doubt will ever be understood by everyone.
A strong element of satire is present in the film, and there are many scenes that use the cinematic medium to their fullest: changing aspect ratio, rewinds, split-screens, black-and-white, non-diegetic writing and images… The director goes full-on crazy with symbolism and styles, with Seligman feeling like a film critic, always trying to find meaning even in the smallest of things, making obscure references that sometimes go nowhere (“I think this was one of your weakest digressions.” was hilarious). The fact that the narrative is quite unbelievable in some parts (just like many, if not every, films) is also addressed, justifying poetic license and dramatization with the simple line “Which way do you think you’d get the most out of my story? By believing in it or not believing in it?”.
Nymphomaniac is basically a big joke. It purposefully created a controversy for something that didn’t really warrant it. It pokes fun at purists and puritans. It criticizes men’s and society’s objectification of women. It is about love and sex. It is about growing and improving. It is about redemption. It is about a lot of things. And for that, I absolutely love it. An instant favorite, and arguably Trier’s magnum opus.
Visual Effects: 9
Violence & Gore: 8.5
Sex & Nudity: 10
Drugs & Profanity: 6.5
Intensity & Horror: 6
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