SPOILERS AND STRONG LANGUAGE/LANGUAGE OF A SEXUAL NATURE AHEAD-
I haven’t written anything in a while on here and I have to say I’ve really missed it. To be honest, most of that has been down to the very fact I haven’t read or watched anything good enough (or bad enough) to really write about. Luckily this film has finally sparked some creativity in me.
Nymphomaniac. Isn’t that a great word? Traditionally nymphomaniacs would have been women with deviant and unrestrained sexual behaviour. The word isn’t used as much anymore, ‘Hypersexuality’ or simply ‘Sex Addiction’ are the preferred medical terms. But I’ll come back to the choice of the word Nymphomaniac later…
So- Nymphomaniac (stylised as NYMPH()MANIAC) is a two-part experimental drama art film written and directed by Lars Von Tier. The film together lasts over four hours, hence why the film was then split into two separate volumes so it would be easier to watch.
I had been wanting to watch this film since I had heard about it back in early 2014. Previously, the only Lars Von Trier film I had successfully watched had been Melancholia. I had high expectations for the film and although many aspects of it, like the cinematography and musical score, were beautiful and effective- the film as a whole fell flat for me. But this film(s) certainly didn’t.
The film begins with an older man, Seligman, played by Stellan Skarsgard, finding a beaten up Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, in an alleyway. He takes her back to his apartment and she begins to tell him the story of her life leading up to now. Seligman is a thoughtful man and analyses and questions Joe throughout her stories, which she tells in chapters relating to objects around his room. Seligman constantly tries to reassure Joe that she is not this evil, awful person she makes out to be.
One of the main reasons I wanted to watch this film so much was due to my interest in human sexuality. I suppose with a title like Nymphomaniac, you’d assume perhaps that the whole film was going to be one real sex scene short of pornography and not much else. Obviously, the film does have a lot of sex scenes. Most were actually performed by the actors ‘porn doubles’ as well, so the scenes could actually depict and show real sex. But the film ended up being a lot more than that, and it was presented in a much more shocking, raw and intelligent way than I first had expected.
Joe’s life has been ruled by sex since she became fascinated with her own sexuality at a young age. She states that she was very aware of her virginity and saw it as something she just wanted to get over with, so one day she goes over to Jerome’s house, played by Shia LaBeouf, who she likes because of his hands (he has got good hands if you’re wondering…I looked), and asks him to take her virginity. The experience is cold and leaves her deeply disappointed, always remembering exactly the amount of times he had penetrated her, three times vaginally and five times anally. Seligman notes that this resembles the Fibonacci Sequence…(whatever the hell that is. I know it’s something to do with math…so I shall say no more,) and this is something that stays with us right until the end of the story, linking up at the end.
To be honest, the idea of watching a film where someone just sits in a room and tells their story through flashbacks seems a pretty dry concept, but this was anything but. I really wanted to know about Joe, I wanted her to tell me everything, more and more, and see the type of person she was and how she reacted to certain situations. How she was when she was younger. Her first job. Being in love. I was incredibly interested in Joe and her life story.
At one point in the film, Chapter 3 titled, Mrs H, Joe talks about her many lovers, all of whom she has no real feelings for. One of them, H, leaves his wife and children for her, and then what follows is a very strange and intense scene with Mrs H (Played by Uma Thurman,) and her three children following him into the house. Mrs H has sort of a mental breakdown and screams at both of them in front of her children, making them look at the bed and sit around the table with everyone. Joe tells Seligman that this highly emotional event barely affected her at all.
I found Joe to be a very interesting and uncommon character who did wild and certainly uncommon things like they were nothing simpler than going to the shops. In the present, whilst in between telling Seligman her story, Joe seemed very cold, cynical and ungrateful towards the man who had taken her into his house. But whilst telling her story, I grew to like Joe and feel something for her, perhaps some pity or even sometimes some slight jealousy for the free type of person she was.
There are many shocking scenes in this film. Shocking as in, I had to hide my face and bite the sleeve of my jumper because I just could believe what I was seeing, (like have you heard of the Cat o’ 9 tails?…)
Sure, some of the sex scenes were shocking because they were so brazen and real looking, but for me, it was the scenes in between all of the sex that really shocked me. Like when Joe performs an abortion on herself in the middle of her kitchen floor with sewing needles and a hanger. Need I say any more? It was really excruciating to watch someone put themselves through so much pain.
I’m not criticising the film for being so brazen and bold with the sex scenes or anything else. I’m commending it. Honestly, Nymphomaniac Vol 1 & 2 was not only an unashamed and in-depth look into someones life and soul, but it was also really refreshing to have a raw, artistic and shameless look at sex, female sexuality and sex addiction. Nothing was hidden. Lars Von Trier does not care if you are prude or squeamish. Nymphomaniac is unapologetic. Women and their sexuality are not censored in this film.
So- to talk again about the word choice of Nymphomaniac and the subject of female sexuality. Joe finally finishes the story of her life up until now, ending what lead her to get beat up in the alleyway behind where Seligman lives. The sun begins to rise, as they have been talking all night, and Seligman begins to talk to Joe about how her deep feelings of shame and guilt for the things she has done in her life may be down to how gender and specifically the female gender is represented in society. Perhaps if a man were to tell the same story about all sexually deviant acts, it wouldn’t feel like much of a confession but more of a bragging story for them. Joe feels at peace for telling her story and finally sleeps, feeling unburdened.
Nymphs, in Greek and Latin mythology, are female nature deities, regarded as divine spirits who are at one with nature and are usually depicted as youthful, free and beautiful. As these nymphs are completely outside of male control, they were depicted as mating with women and men somewhat ‘carelessly’ and at their own free desire. Hence why the word Nymph was then used for women who acted in the same sort of ways, and further added to the word maniac, for women who had perhaps excessive desire for sex or simply slept around a lot.
We are told Joe’s life through the eyes of Joe. Joe is her own narrator for the story she is telling a man, and despite being a hugely sexual person, she still feels ashamed about her stories and experiences. Love is hard for Joe to understand or experience, and even when she does find some sort of ‘love’ with Jerome, her sexuality begins to suffer and she cannot be content in this way.
After watching Nymphomaniac, my interest in Lars Von Trier and his films had surged. I finally decided to watch another film of his I had been putting off for a while, Antichrist and found many of the same qualities in this film too…although for me, it just wasn’t as good.
I definitely admire Trier for his shamelessness when it comes to being shocking. The characters he creates are not normal but they are not completely unrealistic. They are real, complicated, extreme people and he is not afraid to show the extremes of not human nature and human behavior. He shocks not for the sake of shocking, but just for the sake of showing you how things perhaps are sometimes are for some people. Or could indeed be. I mean, most films are squeamish about even showing a woman having an orgasm or masturbating, let alone all of the things Joe does in this film. It’s a really refreshing look at female sexuality and lust.
Perhaps the ending of Nymphomaniac is the most shocking of all, or depending on your view point, not at all shocking. So in case you don’t want to know the ending- skip this paragraph!
The finally at peace Joe goes to sleep, whilst the supposedly asexual Seilgman creeps back into the room and tries to have sex with her, claiming “but you’ve done it with thousands of men!” When she says no. A startled Joe grabs her gun, that she now knows how to use properly thanks to Seilgman, and shoots him, leaving the house as the screen is in complete darkness so only her footsteps can be heard.
(It’s safe to join back now if you skipped the last paragraph-)
There is a lot more I could say about Nymphomaniac. I lot more I could analyse and think about in depth, but I think what I’ve said so far mostly covers it. Once again, I admire and commend Trier for his shameless portrayal of female sexuality, no stone left uncovered. His film, for me, challenged gender roles and forced us to ask why what we are conditioned to think what we seeing from a woman’s eyes was so shocking, and overall was a beautiful look at the life of an extreme and yet extraordinary woman. Dare I say, empowering.
“Dear everyone, don’t think it’s been easy, but I understand now that we’re not and never will be alike. I’m not like you…”
“I’m not like you. I am a nymphomaniac and I love myself for being one, but above all, I love my cunt and my filthy, dirty lust.”
My Rating- 9/10