Nymphomaniac follows Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman who is found beaten in the street by Seligman (Stellen Skarsgaard). Seligman takes her back to his apartment, where she begins telling him the tale of her sexual life. Volume I focuses on her younger years, as young Joe (played by Stacy Martin) dabbles with multiple lovers but keeps finding herself drawn to Jerome (Shia LaBouf). Volume II focuses on Joe's recent life, particularly her marriage to Jerome and her dealings with the sadomasochistic K (Jamie Bell).
Based on the length and material, many assumed that Nymphomaniac would be Von Trier's magnum opus, his greatest provocation to date. But it doesn't quite live up to that status, actually falling flat while still managing to interesting.
More after the jump.
It's particularly interesting that Nymphomaniac is billed as the conclusion of Von Trier's "Depression Trilogy" (following 2009's Antichrist and 2011's Melancholia), because it doesn't really fit with those previous films. There are echoes of both films in Nymphomaniac: a scene involving Joe's son in Volume II mirrors the opening tragedy of Antichrist, complete with the same musical score, while Joe's transcendental orgasm carries the mysticism of Melancholia.
But where both of those films were heavy and dour, Nymphomaniac is imbued with a surprising amount of dark humor. There's sequence in Volume I where young Joe and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) compete to see who can have sex with the most men on a train ride, with the prize being a bag of candy. Joe makes a number of sly comments to Seligman throughout her story as well, often in retort to his more academic analyses of the events she's describing. It's unusual to see this kind of humor lumped in the same category as two overwhelmingly heavy films. In fact, Nymphomaniac may be the closest Von Trier has come to making a comedy since 2006's little-seen The Boss of It All.
As a film about a woman's sexual experience, and a life defined by sex, Nymphomaniac proves problematic. Volume I - easily the superior of the two films - shows Joe finding liberation and power in her sexuality, exploring it on her own terms and pursuing sexual satisfaction as a way of controlling her life. Martin does an absolutely phenomenal job at portraying young Joe; it's very rare for a near-newcomer to hold this strong a command of the screen in a very difficult lead role, but Martin is nearly flawless. The way Martin holds her own is critical, though, because it makes it more believable that Joe is in control of this narrative and her sexuality, a key point to the film.
Volume II, however, is almost unbearably difficult and problematic. As Joe attempts to acclimate to monogamy, she turns to violence, both acted upon her and upon others. She essentially relinquishes control of her sexuality to the men around her, and even when she engages in a relationship with her criminal protege P (Mia Goth), it's marked by emotional violence and betrayal. It's telling, too, that her sexual relationship with P is the only one that doesn't get screen time; Von Trier shies away from non-heterosexual sex throughout the film, leaving P to practically fall into the lazy "predatory gay" trope. Gainsbourg is a more-than-capable actress (check her out in Antichrist and Melancholia), but whatever character-building Joe had in Volume I is erratic, at best, in Volume II.
However, Nymphomaniac is not just about sexuality and gender. Through the character of Seligman, Von Trier makes it clear that his film is a potshot aimed at critics who constantly, to use an appropriate metaphor, get off on writing about his films (he would no doubt see the irony of me writing about his film this way). Seligman frequently interrupts Joe's story to offer an analysis of the symbolism in her tale, drawing from a wealth of knowledge about all manner of subjects. He's looking for meaning in her story, while Joe herself plays devil's advocate, even admitting that the "chapter titles" she uses are based on things she can see in the room. In this case, Von Trier is casting himself as Joe, and the film critic community as Seligman. If there's one key point that Von Trier is making obvious here, it's that he has nothing but disdain for film criticism: his films are his works, and they only have whatever meaning he gives to them.
Taken as a whole, Nymphomaniac is one-half of a very good film. It doesn't live up to the hype, and it's a disjointed, unfocused, problematic epic that mostly stammers its way through its running time. Taken individually, however, Volume I makes for an interesting study of gender disparity and sexual power, while Volume II struggles to continue these developments. Neither rank among Von Trier's best, but at least one of them is a fascinating work.
Volume I: B+
Volume II: C-