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Review: Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 (2014)

Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 (2014)

Directed by: Lars von Trier

Premise: The first of two movies in which a woman recalls her life, focusing on her impulsive sexuality.

What Works: Sexuality has all but disappeared from Hollywood studio moviemaking and independent films, at least those that break into the mainstream, don’t do much with the topic either. Nevertheless a few filmmakers have made interesting, and in some cases daring, forays into the topic, namely in pictures like Don Jon, Shame, and Shortbus. It’s within this small but distinguished company that Nymphomaniac belongs and even compared to its contemporaries this film pushes boundaries and ideas well beyond what’s been done in most narrative moviemaking. Nymphomaniac is many different things. It adopts elements of coming of age tales and redemption storylines as well as the genre of addiction narratives. Those elements have been arranged together very skillfully by the filmmakers and something that they have done especially well is to make it clear that the addiction is a symptom rather than an end in itself. Despite the unusual subject matter of the movie, Nymphomaniac is made in a way that is generally accessible. Filmmaker Lars von Trier is not known for making accessible movies but in terms of its form and storytelling style, Nymphomaniac may be von Trier’s most conventional project since Dancer in the Dark. The story of Nymphomaniac is told in a frame narrative, in which the older version of the main character, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, recalls her life while speaking with her ascetic new friend, played by Stellan Skarsgård. The frame narrative allows the characters to comment on the happenings of the story and add perspective onto the events that the film wouldn’t otherwise be able to include and in general the commentary is smart and adds texture to the movie. In the flashbacks, the title character is played by Stacy Martin and this half of Nymphomaniac is Martin’s film. She exposes herself both literally and metaphorically and in the exploration of this character, the filmmakers of Nymphomaniac are able to do something very unique. This movie provides insight into the relationship between sexuality, human relationships, and our sense of self worth but it is also about the way in which sensation can be a distraction and the picture is able to explore the pitfalls of sexual liberality without being puritanical or misogynistic.

What Doesn’t: Nymphomaniac is a Lars von Trier movie and he is a filmmaker who is known as a provocateur who pushes the accepted boundaries of taste and propriety. He is also a filmmaker who is apparently unconcerned with making movies that are entertaining to a mainstream audience and his most recent projects like Antichrist and Melancholia are explorations of depression and degradation that have no glimmer of hope in them. Those qualities aren’t necessarily flaws and Melancholia was a great picture. But as viewers may suspect by its very title, Nymphomaniac is not a movie that is going to appeal to everyone. This is a niche title and even the art house crowd is going to struggle with it. The feature includes hardcore footage of sexual intercourse and these scenes occur in the film on a very regular basis. It should be noted, however, that despite this footage, Nymphomaniac is not pornography. But the film does crash through all manner of barriers regarding depictions of sexuality in the movies so viewers who have any kind of objection to explicit sex are going to find this picture unpleasant. Aside from its coarse tone, Nymphomaniac is a movie that is episodic and the narrative has a patchwork quality to it. The events recalled by the main character have a logical organization to them but they also exist in isolation from one another and the characters in them are not characterized in the way we would normally expect from a motion picture.

Bottom Line: Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 is a strong picture both in its intensity but also in its intelligence. It is not a movie to be recommended for general audiences but viewers who are able and willing to cope with its explicitness will find a great deal of insight and humanity in the film.

Episode: #484 (March 2014)