Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Willem Defoe
Running Time: 118 min (Part I), 123 min (Part II)
Plot: Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is the self-loathing nymphomaniac of Lars Von Trier’s latest shockathon. Across four hours she tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) the story of her lust filled life, from childhood to present day.
Nymphomaniac contains real sex. Lots and lots of it. Much controversy was made of this fact in the build up to its release (especially at Cannes), but it’s not as gratuitously graphic as you may have heard. That said, you should still choose your companion very carefully.
At the start of this orgasmic odyssey we meet Joe, (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a woman in her late forties, of fragile stature, covered in blood and sprawled out in an uninviting back alley. Luckily for her, the genial Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) acts the pitiful Samaritan and brings her home for a cup of tea. In return, she tells him her story.
Joe’s story is one of permanent, insatiable appetite. As we learn, she’s ‘fucked thousands of men’, and her desires have destroyed countless relationships, discoloured her views on humanity and dictated her whole way of life. She is a self-hating pleasure seeker, critical of her own actions but equally resentful of society, especially when it to comes to love; ‘love is just lust plus jealousy’. Her narrative consists of endless, dizzying accounts of sexual exploration and emotional torment, but Seligman is there to break up the fleshy onslaught with his excitable curiosity. A scholarly bachelor, Seligman cannot connect with Joe’s experiences, so he turns to his vast literary knowledge, making metaphorical interjections in order to relate. During one delightful sequence, Seligman repeatedly cuts off Joe’s stream to compare her having sex with seven men on a single train ride to the intricacies of fly fishing.
The cinematic style of Nymphomaniac is damn impressive, with handi-cam cutaways, kinetic diagrams and seamless multi-panel editing pervading the bleak reality of Joe’s addiction. Onto the much discussed sex scenes; yes they are real, at times brutally and embarrassingly so, but the lack of embellishment is essential to our understanding of nymphomania as any other disease or chemical dependence. Have no fear, the actors didn’t perform their own stunts – Von Trier pulled in porn talent for the ‘heavy heavy’ moments (as Shia LaBeouf so delicately puts it). Nymphomaniac may be graphic, but there is nothing gratuitous about the film, it’s just honest.
Joe’s appearance transforms over her life-spanning journey, and thus various actresses must embody her. Von Trier staple Charlotte Giansbourg gives a resilient and powerful performance as the ‘all grown up’ Joe, but Stacy Martin as Young Joe is just incredible. Unbelievably, Nymphomaniac is Stacy Martin’s first ever film. Martin goes to brave lengths to bring Joe to life, striking a perfect balance between timidity and tenacity. As on-and-off lover Jerome, Shia LaBeouf is perhaps the most perplexing part of Nymphomaniac. It is less to do with the obsequious slime ball he portrays, and all to do with his accent. He’s supposed to be British, but ends up sounding like a Harry Enfield ‘Saffa’ caricature that’s received dialect tuition from Keanu Reeves. How he got away with this is a mystery – perhaps it’s yet another of LaBeouf’s press baiting stunts, and if it was intentional then it’s a magnificent albeit bizarre bit of experimentalism.
Out of all the cast, Uma Thurman deserves special mention. Her turn as a spurned mother is not just scene but film stealing; she scintillates with raw emotion and acts the pants off the rest of the cast combined. Stellan Skargård’s Seligman co-narrates as the voice of reason throughout the film, but his dusty library book reality is no less surreal than Joe’s obsession with bodily gratification. We never fully understand Seligman – his leaking, peeling bedsit somehow contains all the objects necessary to trigger Joe’s memory and progress the story, from a specific painting all the way down to an unusually dainty piece of silverware. Is he just a manifestation of Joe’s guilty conscience, a vessel through which she catatonically reflects on a life of perceived ‘sin’ as she lays bleeding in an alleyway?
Lars Von Trier’s film is exhaustively long but highly entertaining, and it has succeeded in blowing a taboo topic wide open, giving Sam Taylor-Jonhson’s upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey a bit of room to breathe in. Nymphomanic is a marvel in cross-tabular storytelling, and it remains compelling after a full four hours. Dark, funny, and chock full of inventively playful cinematography, this film is well worth your time. At certain points, Von Trier outright bludgeons the senses, but the main message is never lost; addiction comes in many forms, and if you give in then it will come to define you. Now, to answer the burning question that is on everyone’s mind; yes, Shia LaBeouf gets naked, but no, he does not wear a tiny brown paper bag on his Sam Witwicky. #iamnotfomentanymore #stopcopulating