For a film that spends over four hours showing its audience increasingly intimate images of real penetrative sex performed by pornographic body doubles, Nymphomaniac never feels like a film that lingers too long, or crosses the border into gratuity.
Instead, Lars von Trier presents us with a gripping and uncompromising portrayal of a woman’s life through her sexual experiences. Almost every kink, fetish and perversion is explored in the film: masturbation, group sex, adultery, masochism, paedophilia, and somehow even asexuality and virginity. Protagonist Joe’s argument is that sex is the most fundamental and defining human force, and so the story is told through this lens.
We are taken from the masturbatory curiosity of Joe’s childhood, to the promiscuity of her young adulthood, through to the dark and morally questionable sexual practices of her middle age. The sex scenes range from the erotic to the comic to the disturbing, and I found that despite the natural desensitisation to sexual images that the film causes, von Trier still had the ability to shock me throughout.
But to focus purely on the film’s portrayal of sex – central motif, plot point and box office draw though it may be – is to do it an injustice. Von Trier and his principle actors create a personal and emotional narrative. Joe’s life is a compelling journey, which despite various narrative conveniences feels real and human. The four-hour running time doesn’t feel like directorial over-indulgence; rather, it enables the film to explore each stage of Joe’s life with necessary consideration and patience, deepening our connection with her. Both Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who play the younger and older Joe respectively, are intensely sympathetic and entertaining, and the intimacy of their performances invite us to truly know Joe.
Joe’s life story is contextualised through a frame narrative in which her 50-year-old self recounts it to the loveable and bookish Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who aids her after a mysterious beating. Joe presents her life in eight self-acknowledged chapters, each dealing with a different period of her life in tonally and stylistically different ways, an experimentation that keeps the film interesting and allows it to mimic the emotional peaks and troughs of human life. Seligman is an active as well as non-judgemental audience, and makes bizarre analogies to everything from fly-fishing to Fibonacci numbers to the music of Bach. Complete with stock footage and diagrams, these digressions are strangely apt, interesting and often comic. The combination of these chapters, digressions and the run time gave the film a novelistic characteristic; it felt like a rare and exciting cinematic analogue of the literary Bildungsroman.
While the characters Joe meets are generally fleeting sexual conquests of no real consequence, a few are given more significant roles and linger in our memories thanks to fantastic performances. Skarsgard is entirely charming as Joe’s intellectual confidant Seligman, and Uma Thurman fantastically comic as the spurned wife of one of Joe’s lovers. But I found the truly touching relationship between Joe and her father, played by Christian Slater, to be the most memorable and most affecting.
Unfortunately the film’s weak link is found in the notorious Shia LeBeouf, whom I made real but ultimately futile efforts to enjoy. LeBeouf’s performance is lazy and uninterested, and his horrific world-touring, van Dyke-esque accent drew me entirely out of the experience in every scene tainted by his abhorrent presence. His regrettable importance to the plot only worsens matters.
Nymphomaniac’s journey down the sexual rabbit-hole is shocking and disturbing, and will definitely hinder a more sensitive viewer’s enjoyment of the film. However, the film presents an emotional, engaging and often surprisingly comic portrayal of a human life with a rarely-seen level of intimacy. My only real criticism, outside of the mystifyingly present LeBeouf, is perhaps paradoxically that the film seems to reach its narrative present all too quickly.