A woman lies injured in an alley, having been beaten up. This is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She is found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who takes her to his apartment to recover when she refuses an ambulance. There she tells him the story or her life as a self-confessed nymphomaniac...
Lars Von Trier has been a provocateur throughout his career, and when it was announced, Nymph()maniac (so spelled on screen) seemed to continue in this vein: a four-hour, two-part life-story of a self-defined nymphomaniac, containing what the BBFC would describe as “strong real sex” (achieved by digitally joining the bottom halves of body doubles to the top halves of the actors). Joe becomes aware of how much sex will define her life from an early age, having had a vision (depicted near the start of Volume II) of Valeria Messalina and the Whore of Babylon in a field. Joe (played as a teenager/early-twentysomething by Stacy Martin) divests herself of her virginity by means of Jerôme (Shia LaBoeuf) at the earliest opportunity. With her schoolfriend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) she competes to see who can have sex with most men during a train journey.
All the time, Seligman listens. Asexual and a virgin, living a monastic existence with his books, he hears Joe's story, using it as a springboard for digressions based on his wide knowledge of science and the arts. For example, the numbers 3 and 5 play a part in Joe's life. When she loses her virginity they are the number of thrusts she receives from in front and behind. 3 and 5 are, Seligman tells her, numbers in the Fibonacci Sequence, which has ramifications in nature and in art. Meanwhile, Joe continues to tell her story, like a sexual Scheherezade forestalling...something you will have to see for yourself.
The two-part structure of the film was no doubt a commercial consideration due to its length, but Von Trier uses it as a structural principle. Volume I is, on the whole, upbeat. Volume II takes a much darker turn, as Joe's desires take her beyond what society finds acceptable. The film has eight named chapters, five in the first part, three in the second (those numbers again, which also towards the end, become an indication of the nadir Joe has reached). The soundtrack plays a part in the film's design too: it begins and ends with sound over a black screen. Towards the end of Volume I, Joe draws on the polyphonic form of a piece of music by Bach (with the three elements using the three front channels of the sound mix) as a metaphor for the arrangement of her sex life and the differing personalities and demands of the men in it. However, it is love, in the form of Jerôme, for whom she later works for and has a child by, which she finds more difficult to deal with.
Sexuality is a principal driving force in human lives, Von Trier is saying. People can deny it – Seligman not being the only one in this film to do so – but that is at the risk of personal and psychic damage. The film isn't unequivocally sex-positive though: particularly in Volume II there is an emphasis on his darkness, its danger and, towards the end, its degradation. While there is “strong real sex” on display, there isn't as much as there could be, especially considering the film's extended running time, at least in this version. On the other hand, the provocateur in Von Trier is not far from the surface, and in a few places he seems intent on baiting the overly-PC: at a counselling group, Joe insists on calling herself a nymphomaniac rather than a sex addict. The sequence where Joe takes on two African brothers (neither of whom speak English and are both very well endowed, naturellement) is shot through with a distinct sense that Von Trier is quite gleefully being offensive for its own sake. Seligman points out that if Joe had been a man, her story would not be remarkable: but because she is a woman, it becomes transgressive, shameful, making her a bad person, a destroyer of people's lives, not least her own. That's Seligman's thesis, anyway, and it relies on western society being more puritanical than it perhsps is. That's not to deny that slut-shaming goes on, because it does. This is complicated by the fact that Joe may well not be an unreliable narrator, as she seems to be riffing off objects she can see in Seligman's apartment. A fly-fishing lure sets up a whole series of metaphors for Joe's sex life in Chapter 1, for example. Even more complex is the sense that you can't necessarily divorce Von Trier himself from his female protagonists, not for the first time in his work. And also, from Seligman as well: the nerdish, autodidactic side of that character is Von Trier as well, and his scholarly digressions are the film's too. So that it seems that Von Trier is having a debate with himself, as well as with the audience.
The film certainly has its flaws. Gainsbourg and Skarsgård give strong performances, but Stacy Martin (playing Joe in flashback for all of Volume I and nearly a quarter of Volume II) is bland and Shia LaBoeuf miscast. Amongst the supporting cast, Uma Thurman has an impact as the deserted wife of one of Joe's partners and Jamie Bell is hard to forget as a hollow-eyed sadist Joe finds herself in the orbit of. Some of the music used is effective: Rammstein's “Führe mich”, near the start and over the end credits of Volume I, even though I suspect it's included because it includes the word “Nymphomania” in its German-language lyrics. (Incidentally, and by coincidence, I saw Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever recently, a film which uses the same band's “Mein Herz brennt”. A sample of two is too small, but you wonder if German-language industrial metal is the Scandinavian filmmaker's music of choice when their characters hit rock bottom.) Other choices are very on the nose: Talking Heads's “Burning Down the House” as a car gets torched and “Hey Joe” (sung by Gainsbourg) as Joe has...a gun in her hand. But the film is hard to ignore or dismiss, and gives you plenty to think about. It doesn't seem overlong, even at four hours, whether you watch it all in one go or the two parts separately.
Nymph()maniac is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Artificial Eye. The former was the edition supplied for review and the comments below and the affiliate links above refer to that. (For affiliate links for the Blu-ray, go here.) The DVD edition has Volume I and Volume II ((112: 28 and 118:24 respectively, with PAL speed-up) on separate discs, both encoded for Region 2 only.
This is the four-hour theatrical cut of Nymph()maniac, as released in the cinemas of the UK and elsewhere. A five-and-a-half hour cut was shown at the Berlin Film Festival. I have not seen that version; whether or not it will receive a DVD or Blu-ray release anywhere, is not known as I write this.
Shot digitally on the Arri Alexa, Nymph()maniac is presented on DVD in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1, anamorphically enhanced. For some reason, Von Trier shot Chapter 3 in 1.85:1, and this ratio is achieved by means of black bars at the side within the Scope-shaped letterbox the rest of the film is in. (And, while the film is almost entirely in colour apart from some brief flashbacks to Seligman's childhood and some archive footage, Von Trier has presented Chapter 4 in black and white.) A lot of the film is shot handheld, and its look has muted colours for the most part. While fine detail is certainly visible, blacks are not especially strong. However, it was that way in the cinema: I saw Nymph()maniac there projected from a 2K DCP.
There are two soundtrack options: Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). There's not a great deal to choose between them, as – other than the music – this is quite a dialogue-driven film. There are some use of directional effects, beginning with water dripping down walls in the opening scene. I've already mentioned the sequence towards the end of Volume I where the three parts of a Bach polyphony (one per front sound channel) as a metaphor for the differing men in her life, the bass line (left channel) also making use of the LFE channel. The subwoofer also has some use for the rock songs on the soundtrack. Given that it's still more likely than not that an English-language film will not have English hard-of-hearing subtitles on DVD, I give a qualified thumbs-up to Artificial Eye for including them. That's qualified because, at least on the checkdiscs here, the dialogue is rendered in capitals. This makes them harder to read, especially given that sound effects are in lower case. There's a reason why road signs, for example, are not in upper case, and this is a misstep.
Since the debacle of his Cannes press conference for Melancholia, Lars Von Trier has done no publicity himself for Nymph()maniac . However, members of his cast are on hand. The extras on Disc One are interviews, with Charlotte Gainsbourg (12:11), Shia LaBoeuf (9:00), Stacy Martin (10:18), Stellan Skarsgård (11:22), all in the EPK format of text questions on screen followed by the interviewee's responses. None of these go especially deep, though LaBoeuf names Von Trier as being on the “tippy-top” of current directors, though he thought that there were more opportunities for women than men in his film. One of the earliest requests from the production office after he was cast was for a picture of his penis. He found Von Trier more of a collaborator than a director. Martin details the process of shooting the sex scenes, though she left the room when the body doubles were at work. Skarsgård gives an astute analysis of Von Trier's films to date: he said when seeing the director's debut The Element of Crime that he would be interested in working with him when he became interested in people. (I had a similar reaction.)
Much of this is inevitably duplicated by the one extra on Disc Two. The film's UK premiere took place at the Chelsea Cinema London: both volumes back to back, followed by a Q &A, simultaneously shown by satellite at other UK cinemas. That Q & A (23:47) is now a DVD extra. It is moderated by Edith Bowman, who interviews Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark. Skarsgård continues to describe his character as an embodiment of the nerdy side of the film's director, while Martin details the filming of the sex scenes. Kennedy Clark in the same year played the young Judi Dench in Philomena, a very different film stylistically, but one not too far apart in its themes of puritanical attitudes to sex. She and the similarly-aged Martin became friends and thought it was just as well that they did.