Nymphomaniac: Lars von Trier’s Dizzying, Tragic, Hilarious Sex Odyssey

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a pornographic work of art. Shown separately in two volumes, an outline portrays obsessive, violent, humor, and at times remarkably eccentric sex epic that is often brilliant and never simple-minded or dull. The earlier work of the fifty-seven-year-old Danish director; Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Antichrist was soaked in show-off despair. For almost twenty years, he has triumphed on the international art-film circuit as a sensationalist and a boor, making lurid “metaphysical” movies and offering. His previous film, Melancholia (2011), chronicled the end of the world, something that he appeared to welcome, at least as a visually radiant experience.

But now he has sprung back to create the fictional history of an insatiable woman. Saying that a movie is filled with explicit scenes hardly means there are both artistically challenging and purely exploitative kinds of pornography. Von Trier, working in a rigorously formal style, and adding his own intellectual intricacy to the narrative, couldn’t be farther from the glazed single-mindedness of a routine porn director. Nymphomaniac explores one woman’s life through a recounting of her sexual history, and although it is more graphic than recent depictions of bra-in-bed lovemaking, it’s really not as extreme as it might be. In typical von Trier fashion, he sets audiences up to expect far worse to the extent one finds graphic sex scenes “bad” than what he actually gives them.

The story begin with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose life is chronicled for about four decades or so and who narrates her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an asexual intellectual who’s all mind where Joe, the nymphomaniac, is all body. Seligman, a secular Jew, has literally picked her off the pavement, where he found her bloodied and almost unconscious. He’s worried about her and wants to call an ambulance, though she insists that’s not necessary and that she’s a “bad human being” and it’s all her fault. Seligman finds this hard to believe. The story of how she got there encompasses almost her entire life, seen in long flashbacks.

The film is divided into eight chapters. Except for the framing device, Joe’s life is mostly told chronologically, from the first time she can remember experiencing erotic pleasure at age seven (with Joe played by Maja Arsovic) on the bathroom floor with her best friend, B (Sofie Kasten), to the tingling sensation she received from a rope between her legs during a primary school gym class. By the age of 15 (played by impressive former model Stacy Martin), she’s a vampish Lolita in a cardigan, plaid skirt and ruby slippers who orders a biker kid with strong hands named Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) to take her virginity — which he does, in a couple of pointedly calculated thrusts (3+5=8, to be exact, mirroring the number of chapters that make up the movie’s story). Narratively speaking, this movie is playfully episodic and often downright entertaining; as much as Joe insists her story is one of disturbing misbehavior, audiences may find themselves agreeing with Seligman, who seems frequently amused, even charmed by her anecdotes. The movie’s dramatic and comedic centerpiece finds Joe gambling to rid herself of one of her many lovers. It’s uncomfortably hilarious and hilariously uncomfortable.
There are certainly adult movie moments, with porn actors used as sex-scene doubles and a humping thrust here and an explicit dribble there. But there are also moments that prompt unintended laughter, either because von Trier’s overreaching or we’re squirming. Both are valuable. The war this movie portrays, between lust and repression, pleasure and duty, self and other people, is one we all wage in different ways at different stages of our lives. The director just draws the outlines in extremis and fills the middle with details whose truths we both shrink from and recognise. (Text Teuku Ajie)
Watch the official trailer below: