Nymphomaniac, film review: 'Despite the surreal sex scenes this is a serious drama'
Nymphomaniac, Volume I and II
In advance of its arrival, Lars Von Trier’s two-part feature film Nymphomaniac has been generating huge amounts of controversy and speculation. The film is about the erotic life of a woman “from the age of zero to the age of 50.” And true to billing, it is very graphic in parts. It includes bondage, a surreal interracial sex sequence and footage of numerous other encounters.
Von Trier’s inspiration is more akin to the artistic sensuality of Carl Dreyer than the sexploitation of Russ Meyer, however. This is a serious art house drama with a self-conscious literary structure (the film is divided into chapters) and a frame of reference that ranges from Bach to Fibonacci numbers, from Poe to The Compleat Angler.
It is also yet another addition to the series of melodramas that Von Trier has made about long-suffering, martyred women. In the indignities and humiliations she faces, the main character here isn’t so different from Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves or Bjork in Dancer In The Dark.
Much of Nymphomaniac shows off Von Trier at his best, even if there are moments of prurience and extreme silliness along the way.
As the first film starts, we encounter the crumpled body of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), badly beaten up in an alleyway. She is taken in by a kindly stranger (Stellan Skarsgård) and it’s to him she tells the story of her life.
Volume 1 is the lighter in tone. Joe is played as a teenager and young woman by British newcomer Stacy Martin, an actress with grace, humour and a coltish beauty. We see her as a rebel who sets about seducing as many men as possible and who believes in sex without love. She loses her virginity to Jerome (Shia Le Boeuf), a man she encounters again and again throughout the two episodes of the film. His main attraction, at least at first, is that he has a motorbike and strong hands.
There is a tremendous cameo from Uma Thurman as the aggrieved and furious wife of one of Joe’s many lovers. Christian Slater is also quietly effective as Joe’s tree-loving father. Jamie Bell brings a miasmatic whiff of 50 Shades Of Grey as a sadist.
Between chapters, Gainsbourg and Skarsgård have surprisingly erudite conversations about art, literature and the nature of sexual desire.
At times, Von Trier is guilty of special pleading. When we hear characters discussing the perils of political correctness, you can’t help but think he is making a case for himself. The idea floated in the final reel that Joe is a victim of her gender seems glib coming from him. At times, the film slips into bathos. Nonetheless, Nymphomaniac is a serious piece of work bursting with ideas. Sex films don’t come any more cerebral than this.
Arts & Ents blogs
St Patrick’s Day 2014: The worst Irish accents in film history
Grace Dent on TV: EDL Girls: Don’t Call Me Racist BBC 3
Best films on Netflix: 32 movies that will put an end to your scrolling
Chalkie Davies' stunning rock photographs: The Clash, Springsteen, Bowie and more
Game of Thrones star Sibel Kekilli wants more male nudity in the show
Katie Hopkins continues campaign to become Britain's most hated talking head with poorly timed Bob Crow tweet
No EU referendum under Labour: Ed Miliband to reveal that vote on membership is ‘unlikely’ in next Parliament if party wins power
Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
Europeans have ‘got whiter’ due to natural selection in past 5,000 years, scientists say
The rise of Ukip: Study warns Labour that Eurosceptic party's electoral base now 'more working class than any of the main parties'
Fracking is turning the US into a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia
- 1 Is your name now 'banned' in Saudi Arabia?
- 2 Best films on Netflix: 32 movies that will put an end to your scrolling
- 3 Istanbul protesters take 'Ellen selfie' from the back of a police van
- 4 Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370: Jet ‘hijacking’ began soon after take-off
- 5 Lady Gaga has struggled with eating disorders in the past, so it's indefensible that she's glamourising bulimia in her SXSW set