Director: Lars Von Trier
Screenplay: Lars Von Trier
Producers: Louise Vesth
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Udo Kier, Saskia Reeves
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 118 & 124 mins
Why should anyone watch this film? Is it for the shock factor, near frequent blasphemy, or the explicit pornographic content? Conversely, is it the obsessively comprehensive detail of our main character’s life story, told in chronologic flashbacks, or perhaps the finely crafted work of a veritable auteur that makes this compelling viewing? Take your pick, because all these and more are present in this 2 DVD work by Denmark’s own Lars Von Trier.
At heart, Nymph()maniac is really just a simple tale about the main character, Joe (Charlotte Gainsborough), who after a brutal attack unfolds her life story to her rescuer, a seemingly sympathetic loner, Seligman (Skellen Skaarsgard). As might be expected, the film is riven with explicit sexual imagery, shocking encounters and morally challenging discourse on the subject of rampant female hyper-sexuality. However, it does not attempt to vilify Joe’s character, if anything, there is a detached matter-of-factness about how this film takes the viewer through wanton excess and self destructive behaviour in the wake of multiple encounters with all manner of lovers, and a literal parade of penile members.
Nymph()manic is neatly divided up into eight distinctly themed chapters, spanning Joe’s life right up until the the moment of telling, and beyond. It starts, naturally enough, with Joe’s childhood, in which she claims to have been born a nymphomaniac. She describes her devoted father and ‘cold bitch’ of a mother in telling flashbacks which, also reveal her discovery of sexuality (from age two), and losing her virginity at age 15, with Jerome (Shia Leboef), who becomes a recurring love interest / figure in the film.
The story gradually unfolds as Joe proceeds to tell Seligman about her life and nymphomania, in explicit and sometimes painful detail, over five hours of film in total. Joe describes her predatory sexual encounters with strangers on trains, (as a teenager in competition with best friend B), and recalls numerous liaisons, (including a brief flirtation with true love, in the form of Jerome), as well as forays into the worlds of: BDSM (with Jamie Bell), multi-partner trysts (e.g. a bi-racial threesome), and lesbian love (with younger friend, and protege, P). Nothing is left to the imagination as Lars Von Trier tries his best to push through every boundary, and all sides of the proverbial envelope.
Seligman listens throughout without judgement and his only contribution, apart from repeated refusal to agree with Joe that she is a bad person, involves telling several tangential anecdotes about way off topics, such as: fly-fishing, the Fibonacci series, or the Devil’s interval and polyphony in music. These only serve to confirm his character as a lonely, educated, middle-aged bachelor, who is later revealed to be a virgin, which partly explains his studiously non-sexual response to what by some may be considered extremely titillating tales of unrepentant nymphomania.
Given the film’s title and subject matter, there really is no escaping the moral implications of the story-line which Nymph()manic delivers with gusto, along with liberal lashings of lust, grief, loss and guilt over the consequence of Joe’s overactive libido. A few such retributions paid homage to other Lars Von Trier works, e.g. when Jerome and Joe’s little boy very nearly suffers the same fate as Charlotte and Willem Dafoe’s child in Antichrist (2009). Also, several surreal and blasphemous scenes, littered at key poignant moments of loss or guilt, appear to be put in place mainly to shock the judeo-christian sensitivities of male-dominant, western civilized society. However, on the bright side, a few fine cameos by established actors, such as: UmaThurman, Christian Slater and Willem Dafoe, provided some sparkle.
The works of Lars Von Trier, for those that know them well, are singular in their provocative and liberal use of sometimes painful and taboo sexual imagery to bring home the point of the story, and his latest work is certainly no exception. As a founding member of the Dogme 95 movement, LVT is an original, bringing bravery, innovation and credibility when tackling severely personal issues on screen. In some ways, you could almost imagine this story being told by other accomplished writer / directors, in other genres and works, e.g.: Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (comedy), David Fincher’s Fight Club (gritty), Eli Roth’s Hostel (torture porn), Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it (Urban), but it would be hard to imagine them having the same impact as LVT’s own version. For that reason I give this a score of 4 stars out of 5.