This is the Gone With The Wind of movies with ‘real’ sex in them, at least in terms of the fact that Nymphomaniac has roughly the same running time.
As you may have guessed though, in most ways they’re very different movies – in Gone With The Wind Scarlett O’Hara vows never to hungry again, while in Nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) vows never to go without sex again.
Joe is found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) bloodied and battered in an alleyway. He takes her back to his small apartment where she begins to tell him the story of her life, starting with her pre-adolescent sexual awakenings. She then takes him through losing her virginity, which involves her first contact with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), a man who drifts in and out of her life over the coming decades.
This first sexual experience is certainly not the last, with Joe continually exploring her sexuality and sleeping with more and more men, which leads her to diagnose herself as a nymphomaniac. She tells Seligman she is a terrible creature, but he’s not convinced she’s bad at all. As her story goes on though, the effects of her desires become more pronounced – whether it’s getting involved with the extreme sadism of K (an excellent Jamie Bell), or leaving her child home alone so she can have a sexually charged encounter.
Nymphomaniac is certainly an unusual film, not least for including known actors in a movie with ‘real’ sex (although the hardcore shots were done with body doubles) and the fact it’s almost four hours long. Yes, it’s split into two movies, but it’s an artificial split as it’s really just one very long movie. But hey, the version director Lars Von Trier preferred is over six hours long, so this is a bit of snack in comparison.
Von Trier has a reputation for being rather miserable and depressing, and it initially seems like that’s what we’ll get with Nymphomaniac. However it soon reveals itself to be something sly, intriguing and often surprisingly playful. In person Von Trier is known for his dark sense of humour (which even got him banned from Cannes), but that doesn’t often successfully come through in his movies. Thankfully though he brings it to play here.
Nymphomaniac – Volume 1 is a very entertaining movie, which manages to be provocative, thoughtful, well-acted and sometimes even funny. It has a great way with dialogue, particularly between Joe and Seligman as they begin to dissect her life.
The great filmmaking continues into the first part of Volume 2. Indeed the best section of the whole thing is the ‘Chapter’ involving Jamie Bell’s no holds barred sadist, who tells woman coming to visit him there is no safety word and he will not stop until he’s finished whatever violent plan he has in mind. It manages to be simultaneously intense and shocking, yet contains a surprising and slightly confusing tenderness.
Unfortunately though (and as it was always in danger of doing) Nymphomaniac comes unstuck towards the end.
There are several problems. The first is that the narrative is somewhat anchored by the fact we don’t know how Joe ended up beaten up in an alley, but when we find out it’s rather clichéd and unedifying. In fact I wondered if in Von Trier’s longer version there’s a bit more too it, as there’s a sense here of it being tacked on at the end because they have to, and that we’ve missed out on a big chunk of the story.
There’s also the disappointment of Von Trier edging towards the misogyny he’s previously been accused of, but which Nymphomaniac often seems to be a conscious effort to address. It’s more evidence that the director still doesn’t really understand why some people accuse him of chauvinism. You can tell why he might be confused, as so many of his movies are about women being destroyed by men, and so on the surface it might appear he’s the direct opposite of a misogynist. However the problem has always been that his female characters are so often doormats who sit around being abused, with little will of their own and who demure to anything a man tells them.
They are victims not just of men but of their own feebleness.
For most of its run time Joe seems the opposite of this, a woman determined to live life on her own terms, even if that’s sometimes self-destructive. However at the end the film seems unable to help itself but to trip back into the idea that women are inherently victims and men can’t help themselves but be abusive assholes. Compared to the smart, thought-provoking ideas that have preceded it, it’s a disappointing way to end things.
I suppose I should also mention the ‘real’ sex that has been so buzzed about. It’s a bit odd really, as for a film that’s seemingly so keen to be upfront about sex and to include shots of real sexual behaviour, it often still manages to seem oddly coy. The hardcore shots almost feel accidental, with the result that it ends up highlighting the fact we’re not really seeing what the movie is so keen to talk about.
This may be a result of cutting down of the film from Von Trier’s preferred version. The ‘full’ Nymphomaniac is said to include quite a lot more ‘real’ sex. When the director eventually premieres his cut it’ll be interesting to see how frank it is, because as the moment Nymphomaniac may have brief erections, blow-jobs and penetration but it almost seems embarrassed about it.
Overall Verdict: For three hours Nymphomaniac is a very good movie – surprisingly mischievous, smart and engaging. Unfortunately though it all unravels at the end. It doesn’t destroy the good work done up until that point, but it is a shame that overall it’s not as good as many of its individual chapters.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac