Published on March 2, 2014 | by Ben Grazebrook


Film review: Nymphomaniac

Stills from Nymphomaniac film

Nymphomaniac is the vicious story of a sex addict and her attempt to understand the lusts and desires which drive her. [Flickr: Martin Pulaski]


Lars Von Trier is never far away from controversy and his latest film, Nymphomaniac, does nothing to dispel the preconceptions about the Danish filmmaker. Nymphomaniac is split into two feature length movies that follow Joe – played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and a younger self played by Stacy Martin – a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac as she tells her life story to Seligman, played by Stellan Skarsgard, a father-like figure who finds her beaten and bruised in an alley.

Nymphomaniac is the vicious story of a sex addict and her attempt to understand the lusts and desires which drive her. Through flashbacks we see Joe exploring her sexuality from teenage masturbation to middle aged flagellation. As she tells her story, Seligman is sat hunched over the bed, providing a running commentary in which he adapts her tales into abstract digressions.

Volume one is by far the lighter and easier to watch of the two films. Martin plays Joe, a laid-back, carefree individual who is intrigued by her sexual partners. Joe – who is almost playfully chaotic – despises the idea of love and instead sees sex as a form of youthful protest. In one particularly memorable scene, Joe and her best friend B compete for a bag of sweets by seeing who can seduce the most amount of men on a train journey.

Volume two is a much darker and sinister film and sees Joe, now played by Gainsbourg, searching to understand her “filthy, dirty lust.” Volume two witnesses the downfall of Joe, which is highlighted more than ever when she begins her work as a debt collector for Willem Dafoe. Joe puts her understanding of male sexuality to good use in this line of work and in one of the more unforgettable and horrific scenes of the movie, Joe exploits a client’s paedophilic tendencies in order to get him to pay a debt.


The drama gets grittier and heavier as the film progresses and is accompanied by a mixed bag of performances. Uma Thurman is thrilling as a well spoken wife whose husband attempts to run off with Joe. Shia LaBeouf on the other hand is a poor casting choice and his performance and accent both leave something to be desired. Jamie Bell, who plays K, gives a brilliant performance as a dark and dangerous sadist who never quite meets your eye.

One of the biggest issues with the film is its lack of place. The film is set in an unnamed European city whose currency is the pound. The film is given no period or context to when it was set, and there are many instances when the film does not feel realistic; the alleyway where Joe is found, for example, is clearly a constructed movie set. The same can be said for Seligman’s apartment.

Throughout both volumes Von Trier tries to instil in the viewer that sexuality is the strongest and most destructive of human desires. What makes Nymphomaniac so watchable is the heroic and yet brutal way in which Joe tries to understand her own behaviour.

The film is in no way perfect, in fact at times it will annoy and irritate you, and yet it has an emotional punch that remains long after the credits have stopped.

Nymphomaniac is currently showing at all major cinemas.


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