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Nymphomaniac: Volume I – Review

March 6, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Given its provocative title and the adverts which boldly proclaim “Forget about love”, Nymphomaniac, the two-parted sex epic, isn’t as superficial as one might expect. It is a fascinating case study on the excessive sexual desire of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who “discovered her **** at the age of two”.

Lars von Trier, with a keen eye for detail and creative allegories, invites the audience to a journey with Joe, a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac. As she recounts her origin story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a man who rescues her from the streets with Rammstein’s Führe mich raucously playing in the background, we visit key events from her past. These include Joe’s relationship with her parents and her first sexual experience with a man called Jerôme (Shia LeBeouf).

Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 manages an impressive feat to seamlessly shift between comedy and drama whilst unapologetically exploring human sexuality in deep philosophical discussion. One example of this is when Joe (younger version played by Stacy Martin) is competing against her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) in a game of ‘Who has more sex before the train reaches its destination?’. To delve in deeper to Joe’s nymphomania the film intercuts between the past and the present, in which Seligman offers a fascinating comparative analysis of human libido with fishing.

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The highlight of Nymphomaniac: Volume I comes from a section entitled ‘Mrs. H’, in which Uma Thurman steals the show as a scorned wife whose husband left to be with Joe. Ever so politely she bursts into Joe’s house with her children, demands to see the “whoring bed” and confronts Joe. Mrs. H’s long monologue is expertly written and acts as one of the emotional pillars of the film.

Although Nymphomaniac features real sex – and a lot of it –, one would be hard-pressed to describe the film as erotic. Sex is a normal sight in the film, and after the initial shocks and the first few close ups of both female and male genitalia, audiences should be desensitised.

Despite its slogan, Nymphomaniac does not forget about love. Quite the contrary! Some time after Joe and B set up a nymphomaniac’s club, members gradually began to drop as they discovered this fabled force. Eventually this unearthing even managed to reach Joe, who falls head over heels with Jerôme. However, one should not mistake Nymphomaniac as a love story, as according to Joe, love only exists to amplify sexual pleasure.

The subtle and nuance performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård are worth praising, as is Stacy Martin’s turn as Young Joe, who completely dedicates herself to the role. It is particularly impressive, since it is the young actress’ first role, and one that surely will help her build a career.

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The technical work in the film is solid as one might expect from any von Trier film. The screenplay, written by Von Trier, carries the film, and Manuel Alberto Claro returns as director of photography, except this time without the slow motion stills he used in Melancholia.

Lars von Trier does not disappoint with his newest, which is also his funniest. Nymphomaniac: Volume I is a highly provocative film that manages to be much more than pure shock value. It revels in nuance and metaphors. This is a film with an in-depth look at human sexuality like never before.

Nymphomaniac: Volume I is out in cinemas and on VOD now

Sean Ryan