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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 03.20.14] Germany drama avant-garde

It's fascinating that talking about sex draws so many raised eyebrows. The act is as old as time, we all know about it, most of us have experience with it and yet, when it comes to talking about sex, everyone goes quiet and expectant like you're about to reveal some mystery of the universe. It is therefore no surprise that one of the most challenging filmmakers of our generation, the so called "enfant terrible" of film, chooses sex as the subject matter of his new film.

Clocking in at nearly five hours, Nymphomaniac is Lars von Trier's opus. As noted in the opening disclaimer of each part, it's not the director's final vision but essentially, he's not arguing about the cuts in exchange for the movie getting some sort of release because really, what's the point of making a movie like Nymphomaniac if no one is going to see it, raise eyebrows at it, dissect it and try to make sense of what on earth von Trier is getting at? For the purpose of release, the movie has been broken up into two parts but it feels ridiculous to discuss one half without the other. The two parts are integral to each other and essential for rooting out what von Trier is getting at: sex is power and power is control.

Nymphomaniac stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe, a sex addict who is found unconscious in a back alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) a monk-like man who takes her home and nurses her back to health. When Joe comes to, she and Seligman being a conversation that starts simply enough with fly fishing but which soon evolves into what appears to be a confession: Joe is burdened with the feeling of being a bad human being and deserving of all the bad that's befallen her. She sees Seligman's detached pragmatism as an opportunity to air her grievances and perhaps find some semblance of emotional peace.

She begins her story with an early memory of burgeoning sexuality and Nymphomaniac Vol. I unfolds as Joe shares her tale of youthful experimentation – from her first sexual encounter with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), through her wild teen years until a chance encounter brings her together with Jerôme again. That relationship becomes the most significant, both sexually and emotionally, of her life until the day that Joe simiply simply stops feeling and then something else takes root.

While Vol. I is all about experiences, Nymphomaniac Vol. II focuses on self discovery. As the story progresses, Joe's tale changes from one of finding and feeding her sexual urges to a cautionary tale of the side effects of giving into ones desires. Joe's story shifts from one of female sexual empowerment to one of vulnerability, one in which a woman struggles with and eventually drowns under the weight of a debilitating addiction before resurfacing as a new, though not necessarily better, version of herself.

At one point partway through Vol. II, Joe observes that her story wouldn't be as shocking if she were a man. She then explains that if Seligman thinks that's the point of her story, o shock, he's missing the point entirely. Its von Trier's not so subtle way of giving the audience the finger; his fuck you for thinking we've figured out what he means to say by way of the images and dialogue on screen. Von Trier nearly derails Nymphomaniac to make a point or, more accurately, to preach a sermon of misunderstanding to his audience. Yes, the movie is his vision but it's also collaborative effort. What's the point in making something if you don't care for people to see and engage with it? The concept of Seligman as a stand in for the audience is paramount if one is to make sense of the movie's final scene.

On the surface Nymphomaniac appears to be a movie about sex and addiction but boiled down to its core, it's really a story of control. Joe's control over her life and sexuality and on a more meta level, a director's control over his movie and his perceived control over the audience and though I'm reluctant to succumb to von Trier's mythos, I can't help but appreciate his and Gainsbourg's handling of female sexuality. In the latter part of the movie there's a note of desperation in Gainsbourg's performance, qualified considering she's an addict looking for a fix, but for a large part of Nymphomaniac's running time, the handling of sexuality is though, mildly provocative, far more concerned with cementing the idea that women are as much sexual animals as men and I love that von Trier is far more interested in the female response to sex than the male. It's all about Joe and often about her getting off and frankly, that's not something we see enough of in movies.

It's long and problematic and occasionally feels like a slap in the face but despite it all Nymphomaniac is well worth seeing. It isn't quite on par with Melancholia (review), in my opinion von Trier's best, and it won't do much titillating but it's guaranteed to spark conversation on everything from sex and religion to the relationship between filmmaker and the audience.

Nymphomaniac Vol. I is currently available on VOD while Nymphomaniac Vol. II will be available on VOD starting Friday, March 21. Those lucky enough to live in select markets, you can catch both movies playing theatrically back to back.

In Vancouver, Nymphomaniac Vol. I and Nymphomaniac Vol. II will begin a limited engagement at the Vancity Theatre on March 21. Double bill pricing in effect.

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donc48 (8 years ago) Reply

Nymphomaniac sounds like it might be a little ahead of it's time. People who go to mainstream movies are going to avoid it, for a number of reasons. Sex like anything else that's abused can be about power and control, that's as old as sex. I've seen both trailers, and I'm really not sure I'm going to see this. Nymphomaniac's five hour running time is a bit daunting. If it shows up on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon, I'll be very surprised. Sexual addiction is a subject I think should be delved into. Like all addictions (unless you get help and want help) it normally winds up in tears, or a very, very dark place.


guido_jenkins (8 years ago) Reply

as one with some degree of experience with "sexual addiction" I cant say I find anything of value in this film.. plain and simple porn.. boring porn at that... much better can be found for free on the internet so why pay walk-in prices to see painfully shoddy attempts at "trendy" sex??? I'll pass...

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