Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II – DVD Review
What’s It About? In a dingy alley, a stranger (Stellan Skarsgård) finds a woman (Charlote Gainsbourg) injured, bruised and battered, and takes her in. Charlotte Gainsbourg – collaborator with Lars von Trier in Melancholia and Antichrist, his muse – is cast as Joe, a nymphomaniac. Beautifully well spoken, Joe chapters the story of her life from childhood, concentrating on her innumerable sexual encounters, romantic relationships and the sequence of events that led her to be found in a dark alleyway. Skarsgård is Seligman, an endless fountain of wisdom, who listens to Joe’s sexual exploits and make bizarre but genius analogies with angling and Bach. Identifying himself as a Jewish man, Seligman oddly explains the difference of being “anti-Zionist, not anti-Semetic” – recall von Trier’s controversial Nazi remarks at the Cannes film festival, because this moment is his retaliation.
Verdict? A colossal publicity campaign ignited excitement for the latest creative invention from the brilliantly controversial director Lars von Trier. Orgasm faces and the brackets splashed on the publicity posters – Nymph()maniac – unsurprisingly caused prudes to reel in the scorn. The definition of Nymphomaniac is the “uncontrollable or excessive sexual desire in a woman” and the script conveys this without fault. The subject matter is heavy, focusing on Joe’s sexual addiction, but Nymphomaniac possesses an alluring comedic tone that shadows both volume I & II.
As Joe recounts her childhood, brought up by nature-loving father (Christian Slater) and solitaire obsessed mother (Connie Nielson), actress Stacy Martin is cast to play the younger self. Joe was determined to lose her virginity as quickly as possible, requesting petrol-head Jerôme (Shia LeBeouf) perform the deed. It’s short, quick – three pumps followed by five thrusts, prompting the borderline aspergic Seligman to analogise the deflowering with “those are the numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.” These graphic scenes, using prosthetic genitalia, catapult the audience from revulsion to arousal. And one of the initial scenes depicts young Joe and her friend, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), stalking train cabins in filthy competition for male conquests. As bedpost notches tally up – the duo dive on all things phallic, attempting to satisfy an insatiable lust. Seligman, oddly, digresses to compare this to fly-fishing – laying bait and enjoying its success. Shia LeBeouf (Jerôme) is compelling as Joe’s on-off romance, even if he does have a bizarre Aussie-British twang. And accepting her insatiable lust, Jerôme empathises with his nymphet’s labyrinth of sexuality – “when you buy a tiger, you also have to feed it”.
Von Trier embraces black and white cinematography to intensify Nymphomaniac’s bleakness, best depicted when Joe’s father dies, crapping himself as he passes. And the only purity in the nymphet’s life floats away. Yet, despite the death and beatless heart, a bizarre hint of incestuous longing creeps into the fold – be it the fatherly resemblance of Joe’s lovers, or the harrowing lubrication she experiences when gazing down at his dead corpse.
As sex interferes with Joe’s day-to-day life, she plays a game of chance to decide on the men to see again. Von Trier glosses over this, but it is the first hint of a harrowing addiction – a theme visited in the second volume. Instead, volume I is a chance to enjoy meat before it rots – and we laugh maniacally as obese men worship and bathe the nymphet, while others hump her in animalistic fashion. Accusations of misogyny and the like remain a matter of debate, but to an extent, von Trier empowers women – expressed by Seligman musing the thought of society’s reaction to a male sex addict. Is it a coincidence that Joe is a unisex name, using masculine spelling? – Don’t doubt it for a second. But the lusty compulsion for sexual satisfaction mutilates lives – and Uma Thurman is cast to deliver a tragicomic performance as the wife of one of the many lovers, demanding her children to sit on “the whoring bed”.
Nymphomaniac frequently declares sexuality as the strongest component of a human being, and failing to fight her urges, Joe’s life falls to pieces. Unable to control herself, Joe, now the mature Gainsbourg, visits professional sadist K (Jamie Bell) for a walloping. K offers a unique service – coins in gloves, knotted rope and clamps –designed to maximise the pain experienced by his subjects. As whip smashes down on Joe’s bare buttocks, breaking skin and spurting blood from flesh wound, close camerawork and sharp editing cause the deepest intake of breath.
Regressing deeper into murky worlds, Joe succumbs to criminality, taking on the role of sadist in her employment as a ‘debt collector’. Nymphomanic takes an explosive, wild turn, and Von Trier casts Willem Dafoe in a cameo as the criminal mastermind of the immoral extortion business. Unsurprisingly, it is this very business that leaves Joe soaked in her own blood, and drenched in urine. At face value, it appears Nymphomaniac endeavours to shock, but as we witness these disdainful sexual perversions in volume II, a perturbing thought lurks. The wide range of sexual persuasions may not simply aim to arouse and repulse – but cater for the sexuality of all. Von Trier’s controversial reputation and the smutty sexual plethora on offer, including rape and paedophilia, pens this irking thought. Shia LaBoef hails von Trier as the Billy The Kid of the directors’ community – and that he most certainly is.
Final Words: Nymphomaniac is scathing, indulgent and robustly celebratory of sexuality. Complex in its twists and turns, audiences will have to make do with the little segments they can decipher. Joe may describe herself using the quaint term nymphomaniac, but this is a story of the celestial highs and earth-shattering lows of an addict. Don’t expect Nymphomaniac to climax with a banal sentimentality – the last destructive scene will run blood cold.
Extras: If four hours don’t quench your thirst, the DVD boasts additional cast interviews and live Q&A.