Review: Nymphomaniac

On the Theatrical Cut

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a film of extraordinary power. This is quite possibly the director’s best film since Dogville, and like that film, this is an experience that requires patience and an open mind. With that being said, Nymphomaniac is not the sex-fest that the clever marketing campaign would have you believe. In actuality, it is a disturbing – and surprisingly beautiful – character study.

Nymphomaniac is split up into two volumes.

When we first meet Joe (the exquisite Charlotte Gainsbourg), she is lying in an alley in the middle of the night, beaten, bruised and unconscious. A friendly passerby named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) offers her shelter and a cup of tea at his modest home. Over the next four hours, she proceeds to walk him through her sexual history, telling him of her unquenchable desire for sex and the people who have shaped her story and fed her addiction.

Joe believes that she is a bad person, inside and out. Seligman tries to convince her otherwise, insisting that she stay true to her nature. The truth is that Joe discovered her sexuality at a very early age, and ever since then, she has been a slave to her sexuality. It rules her life. It is inescapable. The men that she will meet over the course of the film use her to fulfill their lustful desires – all except for one, a sadistic dominant named K (played by an intensely creepy Jamie Bell) who prefers to brutally beat her rather than have sex with her. Joe willingly walks into these scenarios, knowing full well the risks that may be involved. Her addiction has made her numb – and at some point during volume two of this saga, she loses all sensation in her genitalia – but there is still a touch of tenderness there, tucked away under the mask.

Joe’s first sexual partner, Jerome (a dull Shia LaBeouf), drifts in and out of her life from time to time. He is the only man that Joe has ever truly loved. However, this love will be put to the test in events leading up to the unforgettable (and maddening) finale.

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Like most of the films in Trier’s oeuvre, Nymphomaniac is an unapologetically literary film which explores the psychological and philosophical aspects of sexuality. Nymphomaniac is a dense, intellectually satisfying epic that asks you to consider the humanity of such a person. Trier even draws humorous comparisons between the act of cruising for sex and the art of fly fishing, and there are plenty of religious symbols and parallels along the way as well.

The performances are all wonderful, especially Charlotte Gainsbourg. This is one of the bravest actresses currently working in the business today. Stacey Martin is a revelation as young Joe. Shia LaBeouf is as good as he is going to get here. Christian Slater is perfect in a heartbreaking role as Joe’s father. Uma Thurman turns in a tour-de-force of a supporting role as a scorned ex-wife. Jamie Bell is creepy as hell as a sadomasochist named K.

Much has been made of the explicit sexual content of the film. Yes, it is there. In abundance. And there are even a few brief shots of unsimulated sexual activity,  however, they do not distract. Many are going to go in expecting arty porn, and they’ll come out four hours later knowing exactly what they didn’t get.

On the Extended Director’s Cut

This is the version of Nymphomaniac that we thought we were going to get from the beginning – everything that the bawdy advertising campaign promised and more. This is not a bad thing. In fact, if you are going to watch Nymphomaniac, this is the cut that you need to see. We are presented with an hour and a half of material that was absent from the theatrical cut, and the majority of that material adds some much needed substance to the film that wasn’t quite there before. The character of Joe is completely developed here, and there are several key scenes which give us further insight into her character. Certain moments that were once fleeting and hastily edited are given an almost ethereal quality that calls to mind some of the best scenes in other Trier films, particularly Breaking the Waves.

A notable emphasis has been placed on mood and atmosphere – the sense of time and place. The scenes between young Joe and her father are heartbreaking and about as tender as anything that Trier has written in his entire career.

Yes, the sexual material has gone from R-rated to full on hardcore. Not much is left to the imagination – however, to label the film as pornography would be ignorant, as well as flat-out incorrect. There is absolutely nothing about this film that is titillating. Added to that, there is an abortion scene (pivotal to the entire film) that stands as the single most shocking thing that I have ever witnessed in the cinema. This three minute sequence makes the entire third act of Antichrist seem precious by comparison. If you’re going into this film looking for cheap thrills, you may want to look anywhere but here.

It is my opinion that the extended cut of Nymphomaniac is one of the best films of 2014. Fans of Trier should seek it out immediately. Everyone else is encouraged to stay far away.

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