Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II (18)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner20/02/2014

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 239 mins

Writer-director Lars von Trier's latest controversy-courting drama is a sprawling tale of sexual obsession with strong performances and a jet black streak of humour lurking just under the surface, though there isn't quite enough story to justify its epic running time.

What's it all about?
Written and directed by Lars von Trier, Nymphomaniac (Vols I and II) is an epic four hour tale of sexual obsession that, like Blue Is The Warmest Colour, unfolds in two parts. It begins with kindly intellectual virgin Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe) unconscious and beaten up in the alley outside his apartment. When he takes her to his flat to recover from her injuries, she begins to tell him the story of her life, confessing that she's a nymphomaniac and "a bad human being."

Joe's story begins, so she claims, with discovering her sexuality at age two and progresses through losing her virginity as a 15 year old (played by Stacy Martin) to brutish mechanic Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), as well as seducing multiple men on trains as part of a bet with her best friend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and an affair with a married man (Hugo Speer) that ends badly when his enraged wife (Uma Thurman) comes round with the kids in tow to yell at her. In the (weaker) second volume, Joe's story takes a darker turn when she (now played by Gainsbourg) falls in love, has a baby and loses her ability to orgasm, which leads to her visiting a professional S&M practitioner (Jamie Bell), walking out on her husband (LaBeouf again) and child and taking up with a young woman (Mia Goth) while working as an enforcer for the mysterious L (Willem Dafoe).

The Good
Gainsbourg is excellent as Joe, delivering a performance that it's possible to read in a number of ways: is she an essentially tragic figure, the "bad human being" she claims or is she a much stronger character who has accepted her desires and allowed them to dictate her destiny? Skarsgard is equally good as Seligman (his regular reaction shots are perfectly pitched) and there's strong support from Martin as young Joe, Christian Slater (as Joe's father) and Jamie Bell as K, though Shia LaBeouf is somewhat distracting as Jerome, not least because of a dreadful accent that wanders from South Africa to Australia via England and Scotland, often within a single scene.

The Great
Despite the explicit sexual content (achieved using digital effects and body doubles where necessary), those seeking titillation are liable to come away empty-handed, as it were, as it's one of the least sexy films about sex imaginable. That said, it is often darkly funny and von Trier cleverly uses a number of directorial techniques (cutaways, animation, brilliantly timed interjections) to undercut what we're seeing on screen in increasingly amusing and off-the-wall ways, such as when Seligman delightedly interrupts Joe to tell her that her sexual experience is comparable to fly-fishing.

Worth seeing?
Impressively directed and superbly acted, Nymphomaniac is a compelling and darkly funny drama that skilfully defies expectation. Recommended.

Film Trailer

Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II (18)
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Content updated: 22/09/2018 22:30

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