One night a man finds a wounded woman in the alleys near his house. He offers her help, but all she wants is a cup of tea. When he brings her home she begins to tell him the extraordinary story of her life as a nymphomaniac.
The popular thought is that Lars von Trier's final part of the "Depression" trilogy, which also consists of "Antichrist" and "Melancholia" is here to bring porn on bigger screens, that it's another cry for attention. It'd be easy to find reasons why "Nymphomaniac" isn't a good idea, and I certainly didn't know what to expect either. But as Lars von Trier has rarely disappointed me odds were for this movie to entertain me, so like with "Melancholia" I made sure to check it on the Swedish premiere.
In what seems like a reimagining of the '73 sexploitation movie "Anita", Stellan Skarsgård yet again finds a woman with a serious sex addiction (yes, exactly this happened in "Anita" with Stellan Skarsgård in the role). This is where the two separate though. Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) lives as a loner in a relationship with his books, his knowledge, his fishing. One day on his way back home from the store he finds a woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), beaten and bruised on the pavement in an alley. He walks to help her, offering to call an ambulance or the cops, but she stops him. She doesn't mind his help, but a cup of tea and some rest is all she needs, so he brings her home with him. They quickly begin a discussion about her, as she claims she is a bad human being - which Seligman does not believe. She begins to tell her life story of nymphomania, which starts back as a young girl when she and her friend play "frogs" in the bath room.
Her story goes through the number of people she meets (many of which she has sex with), her relationship with her father, how she meets Jerôme (the only "love" of her life?), how she became part of an all-woman sex cult, and so on. During all of this, which brings some of the funnier moments of the movie, Seligman ties everything back to math, books, religion, fishing, Frued in an attempt to understand Joe.
There is no doubt that Lars von Trier wrote this with a childlike enthusiasm, eager to empty his mind of any idea he could discover along the way, while tying it all back to Joe's nymphomania. "Nymphomaniac" is a very sad movie and with sad characters, but it's also very funny, often poking fun at itself and the unbelievable - almost fantastical - story that is being told. Seligman brings many of the funny moments, but some of them are also taken straight from textbook comedy situations such as being trapped in uncomfortable situations with people. In this case Uma Thurman's Mrs. H storming into Joe's apartment with her kids after finding out that Mr. H is sleeping with Joe and wants to move in with her. It's basic comedy, but it works oh so well when you have Uma Thurman ask if she can show the children "the whoring bed". The movie also comes back to many of Lars von Trier's past movies, ranging from the devastating opening of "Antichrist" to the haunted halls of "Riget" (I even think I found a bit of "Dear Wendy"), and sometimes only to mess with the audience. Nothing surprising if you know Lars von Trier's provocative humour (how could you not after what happened in Cannes with "Melancholia"?). It's more than just him messing around though, because everything builds to make this a memorable movie and not just a typical European sex drama.
Seligman also makes sure that the movie is filled to the brim with symbolism, metaphors, associations to literature, religion and all that. Perhaps to an extent that takes it too far, but that kinda becomes a joke in the movie as well. Is it to actually give a deeper meaning to Joe's nymphomania, or is it to show how easy it is to find meaning where, perhaps, there is none? This would only be one of many things to tie the movie back to "Antichrist", a movie which Lars von Trier went out and clearly declared that not everything has a meaning. Joe's character cleverly ties back to her character in "Antichrist" without making it too certain if it agrees or disagrees with the statements of "Antichrist", but it ties a nice knot to this trilogy. The many (perhaps nonexisting) symbolisms in "Nymphomaniac" are illustrated often with stock footage, images, text and numbers on the screen, which yet again gives this a more fun and childlike touch, helping us getting through 4 hours of this devastating, provocative, depressive, sex-filled life story. It's good that the movie is split into two, and the screening had a break (as most screenings will) between the two, which means that it's actually very easy to get through it, but the main factor for making it easy is not for the break. It's that the movie never stands still, it always wants to show us the next stage in Joe's life and our curiousity is constantly peaked.
This 4 hour version is supposedly the cut version, cut without Lars von Trier's control but with his consent. Whether his 5h 30min version actually exists or will ever be released, I don't know, but I would love to see what else can be filled in this movie. It's very long as it is, and tells a complete story, but some parts could have needed more space still (surprisingly). That said, when you hear of a movie called "Nymphomaniac", and you hear "cut", you instantly think of all the sex that must have been edited out. It's likely that a ton of explicit sex has been edited out, but there is plenty to be found in this 4 hour version. I don't think the movie, 4 hour version or otherwise, will have so much explicit sex that the movie becomes ABOUT that. Even though you have watched penetration, blowjobs, vaginas, asses, penises (a whole collage of them!) many times over, graphically, during these 4 hours, it never takes the upper hand. And despite what I think many will say, I think all of it was needed to tell this story. Joe's character isn't addicted to sex because of past problems, she's addicted to sex because she loves it. Nymphomania becomes her personality, that's what her days are all about - planning when to see the next man, looking for ways to get to another level, and so on. Not showing explicit sex in this movie would cut the movie short of how straight forward it wanted to be about the subject. It's not a feature about "Girls Gone Wild", it's about a life where sex becomes everything and the only thing.
I can't say that this movie is raw and real, because Lars von Trier's writing has made sure that there is always something strange going on, even in the dialog. The characters don't really talk as real people do, the story told is very extraordinary and sometimes illogical, but it's up to you if it works or not. Personally I got rid of realism already in the opening, which felt very much like the beginning of a play. And as Joe states when Seligman can't believe some of the things going on, this is her story and it's up to him if he wants to believe it or not, but which way will get him more out of it - believing it or not believing it? Lars von Trier is yet again talking to us.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin both do a great job as Joe in different stages of her life. Stacy Martin takes good care of the youthful side, the rise of the nymphomania and finding love. She plays the stronger, rising side of Joe. Charlotte takes care of Joe's fall, wisdom and darker sides. Charlotte Gainsbourg is a great actress and have proven herself to be a great asset to Lars von Trier's stories in these three movies, and this seemed like it was her time to have fun, as she lays the trilogy to rest. We certainly hope she will return to his movies, and I believe she will because we still see Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Willem Dafoe, Jean-Marc Barr, Jens Albinus and probably a few more after all of these years.
Visually I'd say that both "Antichrist" and "Melancholia" has this one beaten. Watching "Melancholia" on the big screen as the ending approached was quite amazing to me, but I would honestly say that except for a few shots of "Nymphomaniac", it could do just as well on the TV screen. A lot of the cinema experience comes from sound, and this is smaller, quieter movie although it moves faster and is more fun than "Melancholia". That's not to say that it's a boring movie visually, there are many tricks done to enhance the movie. The opening is fantastic, many of the illustrative shots would perhaps serve more purpose on the big screen, and as Joe climbs a mountain to discover a lonely, naked and twisted tree on the very top I'll admit I was happy I saw it on the big screen. The overall experience would work just as well at home though, I believe. That's not to say you shouldn't go see it on the big screen, because it could be fun watching a bunch of explicit sex with older people in the audience, right!?
"Nymphomaniac" is a very long movie to get through, but it has a lot of things going on. The story is quick and Seligman keeps us busy with his intellect (which brings a lot of the comedy), so it's hard to be bored. People are always split when it comes to Lars von Trier's movies, and that will be the case here too. Some will see it simply as smut, some as pretentious garbage, but if you manage to care about Joe then odds are you will be interesting from start to finish. It's strictly about Joe, and the actresses portraying her makes her likable even when she shows how little she cares about anything but her sexuality. We're all our own judge whether she is the bad, horrible person that she claims her nymphomania makes her, because I don't think a clear message is to be found. Even down to the finale it can be seen from different angles, which works as she tells her story to Seligman, her complete opposite in every way. You'd need to losen the tie a bit for this movie, because it might be pretentious, provocative and pushing buttons for the sake of it at times, but it's actually an entertaining movie that shows many sides of Lars von Trier (you'd know them all if you've seen everything of his already, of course). I don't believe it his best work nor his worst. It's a different kind of a movie and while it might not hit you in the gut like "Antichrist" or in the feels like "Breaking the Waves", it has a million things going to make it an interesting, captivating movie. I'll need time and rewatches to know how well it stands up against his filmography. We went to see the life story of a nymphomaniac, and that's what you get.