Nymphomaniac (Vol. 1 & 2) (2013): Final Installment in Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's Depression Trilogy

A daring treatise on lust, jealousy and solitude

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

Nymphomaniac (Vol. 1 & 2), Directed by Lars von Trier, movie poster, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, and Christian Slater.
Nymphomaniac (Vol. 1 & 2) (2013) By Lars von Trier
Our Combined Rating (for Vol. 1 & 2): 8.5
Genre: Drama
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin
Country: Denmark | Germany | France | Belgium | UK
Combined Runtime: 241 min | 330 min (extended cut)

SummaryA self-diagnosed nymphomaniac recounts her erotic experiences to the man who saved her after a beating.

Nymphomaniac (Vol. 1 & 2) is a 2013 Danish drama film written and directed by Lars von Trier. Before going any further it's imperative to demystify the movie's title. According to the dictionary definition, “Nymphomania is the uncontrollable or excessive sexual desire in a woman.” So, basically, a nymphomaniac is a woman who has abnormally excessive and uncontrollable sexual desire, in other words, a female sex addict. Nymphomaniac got released internationally in form of two separate volumes of roughly two hours each. However, Lars von Trier also premiered an extended cut of the first half of the film, Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1, with 30 minutes of extra footage at the 64th Berlin Film Festival, which garnered rave reviews. This film critique doesn’t analyze the two volumes separately but as a whole. For, these are not two different films but one film split up into two parts for commercial reasons. Nymphomaniac (Vol. 1 & 2) stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, and Shia LaBeouf in pivotal roles. The movie also features cameos from Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Connie Nielsen and Christian Slater. 

Franco-English model-turned-actress Stacy Martin as young Joe, Directed by Lars von Trier
Stacy Martin as the young Joe in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac
Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac—a bold and daring cinematic treatise on lust, jealousy and solitude—proves to be a devastating life-changing experience that makes us question the nothingness of our existence. As a work of art, it refines ours senses and haunts our imagination with its ribald motifs and breathtaking imagery. In Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier essentially presents, in form of eight sprawling chapters (5 in Vol. 1 and 3 in Vol. 2), the bizarre tale of a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, named Joe, recounting her erotic experiences during the different phases of her life.  Lars von Trier borrows random ideas from varied disciplines—be it forbidden ones like female libertinism and sexual fetishism; obscure ones like fly-fishing and plant taxonomy; or quotidian ones like mathematics, literature,  philosophy, music and religion—and blends them seamlessly, not only demonstrating his remarkable range as an artist but also reasserting his credentials as a filmmaker par excellence.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as middle-aged Joe, sexual fetishism, physical torture/abuse scene, in Nymphomaniac, Directed by Lars von Trier
Charlotte Gainsbourg as the middle-aged Joe
Nymphomaniac is the final part of Lars von Trier's "Depression Trilogy", having been preceded by Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011). Lars von Trier, in his characteristic style, handpicks a rather controversial subject and then gives it the most unconventional treatment. The result is an end product that's dark, diabolical, and deviously clever. The movie despite its serious outlook has an undercurrent of dark humour that harks back to von Trier's earlier works. The movie's characters serve as a conduit to evoke the viewers' deepest emotions, unveiling the shrouds of their ignorance and bringing them face-to-face with their innermost conflicts and insecurities. Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, which presents Joe’s younger years, unfolds at a whirlwind pace and seems to underline the unrestrained joys of female libertinism. It’s a sheer delight to watch a newcomer (Stacy Martin) portray Joe’s youthful years so passionately and with an air of effortless ease. Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, which has a rather somber feel thanks to a drastic tonal shift with respect to Vol. I, shows the middle-aged Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) finally come to term with the limitations, hardships and hypocrisies of a mortal's life as she ends up paying the price for her frenzied modus vivendi.

Christian Slater as Joe's father in Nymphomaniac, Directed by Lars von Trier
Christian Slater (right) as Joe's father in Nymphomaniac
Lars von Trier is unarguably the most influential filmmaker to have emerged out of Denmark since Dreyer. His singular works of cinematic art often come across as mysterious, bizarre, and often inscrutable to the average audience. Nymphomaniac is easily Lars von Trier’s most accessible work till date. But, make no mistake! It’s not your run-of-the-mill cinematic product. Is it pornography? According to Wikipedia, “Pornography is the explicit portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purpose of sexual arousal.” Now, there’s no denying that von Trier’s film is quite explicit in its propagation of sexual content. But, does it serve the purpose of sexual arousal? The film evokes pathos, horror and revulsion but not an iota of sexual gratification (unless you are a pervert). Credit must go to Lars von Trier for concocting a film that in less accomplished hands could have slumped into the realm of artsy porn. Vintage von Trier, Nymphomaniac is not merely an erotic tale of a female sensualist, but is also a scathing satire on the tortured human relationships in our fast-paced world.

Uma Thurman as Mrs. H, Hugo Speer as Mr. H, Stacy Martin, in Nymphomaniac, Directed by Lars von Trier
Uma Thurman (left) in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac
In Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier makes some very interesting choices especially with regards to acting: be it using two actresses to play the same character; using a Hollywood star like Shia LaBeouf, who is not particularly known for his acting, to play a pivotal part; or casting Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe in cameo roles. Legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel once used two different actresses to play the lead character of Conchita (that too for the events that take place on the very same day) in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Buñuel had done it to highlight the different sides of Conchita’s personality and probably to heighten the movie's surrealism. But, Lars von Trier is neither a surrealist nor does Joe seem to share Conchita's dichotomy. Any reasonable director would have been contented with just one actress playing the part of Joe. All it would have required is a little bit of makeup and hairstyling to take care of the age differences between the two Joes. But, Lars von Trier has never been the one to be bounded by reason. He once again leverages on his creative freedom making an artistic choice that ultimately pays off. Both Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg play their respective parts with awe-inspiring brilliance. While Martin’s Joe epitomizes the exuberance of youth, Gainsbourg’s Joe embodies the troubled spirit of a maimed beast robbed off its freedom. Come to think of it, it just seems impossible to imagine Martin play Gainsbourg's part and vice versa.   

Stellan Skarsgård as Seligman, Charlotte Gainsbourg as middle-aged Joe in Nymphomaniac, Directed by Lars von Trier
Stellan Skarsgård (right) as Seligman in Nymphomaniac
In Nymphomaniac, for some uncanny reasons, Lars von Trier chooses to make his male characters either dumb or effeminate and the female characters smart and transgressing. Lars von Trier questions the elevated status of love vis-à-vis other human emotions: Joe tells Stellan Skarsgård’s character, Seligman, who rescues her, “For me love was just lust with jealousy added. Everything else was total nonsense. For every hundred crimes committed in the name of love, only one is committed in the name of sex.” Lars von Trier creates a very interesting character in Seligman—an intellectual who chooses to stay a virgin all his life. According to Seligman, humanity is divided into two groups: the people who cut the fingernails of the left hand first (the light-hearted people who have a tendency to enjoy life more because they go straight for the easiest task and save the difficulties for later), and the people who cut the fingernails of the right hand first. Seligman himself belongs to second category as oppose to Joe who being a true pleasure-seeker falls in the first category. While Seligman and Joe come across as exact antithesis of each other, there’s much in common between the two of them. The two are tied together by some strange bond. Is it pity or envy? In the end, Nymphomaniac poses the all-important question: Whether to to live a life of our own choosing or to let others chose a life for us?

Shia LaBeouf as Jerôme, Stacy Martin as young Joe, in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, Directed by Lars von Trier
Shia LaBeouf as Jerôme in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac
Overall, Nymphomaniac proves to be an endlessly fascinating work of cinema that brilliantly balances style with substance. At the same time, it’s not an easy film to watch by any stretch of imagination and can pose serious impediments to the uninitiated viewer. Lars von Trier’s unconventional choice of using pre-recorded classic music proves to be a brilliant one and reminds this critic of the great Stanley Kubrick. Nymphomaniac features a lot many memorable sequences. The one featuring Uma Thurman in the role of a distressed wife is definitely a cut above the rest. Then there’s the movie’s shocking finale that’s bound to leave the viewer cold. Amidst a plethora of disturbing scenes the movie does offer few moments of respite thanks to the occasional bursts of humor. Joe’s messed-up erotic encounter with two black men inside a hotel room is by far the most hilarious. The movie also features a levitation sequence that’s highly reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1975 film, The Mirror aka Zerkalo (the seventh chapter of Nymphomaniac is also named as “The Mirror”). Lars von Trier also pays tribute to Bond films; Joe names the eighth chapter “The Gun” after Walther PPK automatic, the gun that was issued to James Bond after his preferred pistol Beretta had got jammed. Joe's morbid sexual behavior and the underlying sexual fetishism remind one of Bunuel's remarkable 1967 film, Belle de Jour. In one of the scenes, Lars von Trier cheekily pays homage to the opening sequence of Antichrist. Thus, Nymphomaniac, in so many ways, is Lars von Trier's tribute to cinema, a solemn expression of his love and appreciation for the medium. In Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier seems to have blatantly depicted almost all forms of human sexuality: be it heterosexuality, pedophilia, homosexuality, bisexuality, nymphomania, or sexual fetishism. This makes Nymphomaniac a very challenging film to watch for an average viewer. But, courage and patience have their own rewards, and in this case, plenty. Highly Recommended!

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