Lars Von Trier may be the “bad boy” of cinema, what with his using unsimulated sex in his films and making half-baked, pro-Nazi pronouncements, but it can get lost that he makes very good films. I’ve seen six of them now, if you count Nymphomaniac as one film. I loved Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Melancholia, wasn’t crazy about Dogville but admired it’s theatricality, while I hated Antichrist with a passion. Nymphomaniac, which has raised eyebrows, is a very good picture, although it could be called smut for intellectuals.
Nymphomania is a quaint term. Today the condition is called hypersexuality or sex addiction, although there are those who believe there is no such thing. But Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Joe, calls herself a nymphomaniac, and is proud of it. We first see her lying bruised and bloody in an alley. She is taken in by a mild-mannered intellectual (Stellan Skarsgard), who gives her some tea and listens to her story.
“I was two years old when I discovered my cunt,” is the first line of her oral autobiography. She recounts masturbating at an early age, and losing her virginity at the age of 15 to none other than Shia LeBeouf, who pumps three times in her vagina and five times in her ass, numbers she has never forgotten. Young Joe is played by Stacy Martin, a willowy model who will stimulate the reptilian part of most men’s brains, wondering why they never ran into a nymphomaniac who looked like that.
Gainsbourg is triggered to parts of her story by objects in Skarsgard’s monkish apartment. They are random things, like a fishing lure, a religious painting, a book of Poe’s stories, or a stain on a wall. The film, divided in two volumes, is further broken down by chapters, giving it a novelistic approach. This is further amplified as Skarsgard, who seems to have a deep reservoir of trivia, annotates her story, waxing on such varied topics as fly fishing, polyphony, Fibonacci numbers, the Eastern church, and Freud. At times I found this drolly funny, which I think was the intention, as the attitude with this pontification is not overly pretentious.
The stories, except for one, are all sexual in nature. We watch as Martin and her friend take a train ride and have a bet as to who can fuck the most men (the prize is a bag of chocolates), and Martin reuniting with LaBoeuf, but having sex with anyone except him, then later living with him, but temporarily losing sexual sensation. She, now played by Gainsbourg, gets it back after seeing a man (Jamie Bell) who is a sadomasochist, whipping her viciously (it’s also amusing to imagine a man could see frustrated women like this in an office, as if he were a therapist).
Gainsbourg will crave Bell’s beatings so bad she will leave behind her child to see him, a theme Von Trier also used in Antichrist. He is obviously fascinated by lust so strong that it trumps maternity. Gainsbourg will later attend sex addicts anonymous, but quits the group, declaring she is not like the others in the group.
The film is sprinkled with semi-famous actors, some Von Trier regulars, like Willem Dafoe, who appears late in the film. He hires Gainsbourg as a debt collector. Also appearing are Christian Slater, as Joe’s father (he has a big scene where he dies of delirium tremors) and Uma Thurman, almost unrecognizable as a woman who confronts Martin for stealing her husband, bringing along her three children. This is a wildly comic scene, as the two lovers stand by as Thurman takes the kids into the bedroom to see “the whoring bed.”
Nymphomaniac is notorious for having unsimulated sex, some of them artfully done by porn stars and edited in, but a few scenes, such as Martin and Gainsbourg both performing fellatio, aren’t faked. The scene that perhaps best typifies the sly humor of the film is when Gainsbourg is having sex with two black men. She is on the bed in background while they argue which entry each is going to take, their large black cocks wagging in the foreground.
The ending surprised me, and I found it disingenuous, even though it was inevitable. I am ashamed to admit I forgot Chekhov’s rule about showing a gun.
My grade for Nymphomaniac: A-.