One cold winter’s evening, a bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a woman beaten up in a nearby alley. He takes her home to clean her up. Her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and she is a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac. She tells of her life with this affliction through 8 chapters, recounting all the graphic details. These stories are interlinked with books that Joe has read throughout his life. Two people from different lifestyles come together through one story, a story of sexual desire that contains shock and controversy.
Director Lars von Trier doesn’t play by the rules – he never has. His films cause controversy and open up debate on every subject he touches. Nymphomaniac is his biggest work to date, and comes with the most controversy. Telling a four hour story about a woman who is addicted to sex could verge on being a pornographic film, however Von Trier keeps the focus more on the aspects of her life and why her need for sex is required.
The sex is on full display for the majority of time and explores pretty much every aspect. It’s not as heavy as first expected and when shown in relation to Joe’s life it feels more like a requirement so we can understand her and the reasoning of her morality.
The film is split into two parts with part one being the teenage and young adult years. These two hours are the most graphic and intense. The story doesn’t appear to move much beyond the randomness of sex and desire. But what we are experiencing is the lead up to the second part (another two hours) that delves into the psyche of Joe, as she starts to understand her affliction and the steps she has to take. With more open debate in the second half it feels like an entirely different film, but one that we needed to see the first half of to fully appreciate what Von Trier is saying about society through the body, and mind, of Joe and Seligman.
Charlotte Gainsbourg continues to hold a Von Trier film together due to her stellar performances. This is her most ambitious piece of acting and yet she fits easily into such a complex mould. Her sullen moments sit with anguish and despair compared to the rump-a-pump of the sex.
Stacy Martin, who plays the younger Joe, is extremely beautiful and an excitable talent for the future. She commands the role with enthusiasm and bundles of sexual power. Skarsgard keeps it cool and calm as the level headed one. There is a wayward performance from Shia LeBeouf, who seems to not understand any facets of his characters apart from when he has his trousers down. He also struggles with a strange accent that veers all over the place.
Nymphomaniac will be constantly accused as porn dressed as art, yet it’s a film that is much more than either of those words suggest. This ‘sex’ film is more a psychological study into the mind of someone who seeks an outlet that is not in line with society. At four hours, it’s an exhausting watch, but a thoroughly rewarding one that displays challenging film making at its best.