Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II

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Director: Lars von Trier.
Screenplay: Lars von Trier.
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LeBeouf, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Jean-Marc Barr, Connie Nielsen, Mia Goth, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Udo Kier, Michael Pas, Jesper Christensen, Saskia Reeves, Caroline Goodall.

Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colours when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.

When provocateur Lars von Trier released the magnificent “Dogville” in 2003 and followed it up with “Manderlay” in 2005, I was very eager to see him complete his USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy. Unfortunately, the third instalment “Wasington” never came to fruition. He did, however, venture into another trilogy – focusing on depression. The gruelling and unforgettable “AntiChrist” was the first, followed by the restrained and meditative “Melancholia“. Now, von Trier completes this outstanding trilogy in style.

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Volume I: Joe (Charlotte Gainbourg) is found in an alleyway by a compassionate man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). As she is badly beaten, Seligman takes her back to his home to nurse her. It’s here that Joe proceeds to tell him her life story of being a self-confessed nymphomaniac and the sexual encounters she had during her adolescence (played by Stacy Martin).

Volume II: Joe’s story of sexual exploration grows darker as she recounts her erotic adult experiences (now completely played by Gainsbourg) of group sex and bondage and how she found herself in the alleyway where the asexual, scholar Seligman found her.

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Von Trier is certainly no stranger to quoting controversy. Throughout his whole directing career he has always managed to raise a few eyebrows and invite some vitriolic hatred towards his films. Personally, I regard him as one of the most important and visionary directors that we’ve ever had. I admire his unflinching approach to taboo subject matters as well as his intelligence in tackling such endeavours. He, admittedly, can be shocking but there’s always a level of intelligence to his films that far out way any of the gratuity that he’s proclaimed to deliver. “Nymphomaniac” is no different and it’s definitely a film to masticate over. Yes, I said masticate… That’s just your dirty minds taking hold already.

As you will have noticed, this is a review that encompasses both volumes in their entirety. The film is one complete story and being released in two parts, only strikes me that audiences wouldn’t have been fully prepared for a 4 hour sitting (although the Director’s Cut would be even more of a challenge as it runs for a full 5 1/2 hours).

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Say what you will about von Trier and his movies but there really isn’t anyone else at the moment that’s tackling the matters that he does. As a society we often avoid uncomfortable subject matters or issues but if we fully explore the artform of film and how it can help us cathart or explore our innermost desires or fears then von Trier is certainly at the forefront of doing so. His films are, by no means, for those of a sensitive or prudish nature but for those willing to delve into the depths of human psyche or behaviour this man really shows no bounds. I, for one, applaud his unrepentant boldness and audacity.

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The claims that this is just a self-indulgent porn film are sorely mistaken. This is, in fact, so much more than that. It’s an odyssey of self discovery and nihilistic sexual exploration, laid out in eight novelistic chapters (which also reflect Fibonacci numbers and the amount of times our protagonist was penetrated when she lost her virginity) and incorporates everything from masturbation, a montage of penises, the use of a Nymph in fly-fishing, Johan Sebastien Bach’s polyphonic harmonies and the use of the Prusik knot in bondage. If that’s not enough to wet a voracious vulva, then an education in “the silent duck” may just do the trick. But (as the tag line says) “Forget about love”. Love, we are informed, is “just lust with jealousy added“.

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Von Trier doesn’t mince his words here and he rarely skips a beat. There are shades of the sexual promiscuity that he covered so well in “Breaking The Waves” and a similar, playful humorousness that he delivered in “The Idiots” – where he also had porn actors engage in the real intercourse scenes. Speaking of which, the CGI intercourse scenes are seamlessly and impressively handled and it’s difficult to tell where the porn actors start and the dramatic actors end. It’s quite an achievement and it’s during these scenes that some will view the film as exploitative or mere titillation but there’s a truth and depth to von Trier’s ambitions. He questions the intrinsic polarity of how a form of sexual-liberation can also be empty and soulless and he explores how science and religion form the constructs of how we behave socially.

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Of course, a certain willingness to go along with von Trier’s philosophical ramblings is required and that’s where his cast pay him dividends. It’s through the commitment and bravery of his ensemble that he’s able to realise his vision and few, if any, let him down; Charlotte Gainsbourg (who has appeared in the complete trilogy), once again, shows a fundamental courageousness and Stellan Skarsgård (another of von Trier’s most reliable regulars) anchor the film with their naturalistic approaches. Solid support also comes from Jamie Bell as a sadomasochist and the American contingent of Willem Dafoe, Christian Slater and Shia LeBeouf (despite a very questionable accent) deliver good work. From that assemblage, though, it’s Uma Thurman who really shines as a scorned wife and mother. In one of the films most memorable scenes, she gate-crashes the house of her husband’s mistress asking to show her children the “whoring bed”, which their father has found so sacred. The biggest revelation, however, is newcomer Stacy Martin who fearlessly tackles her extremely difficult role with as much professionalism as an actress twice her age. Von Trier has unearthed a talent in this young actress and I’d be very surprised if we don’t see more of her in the future.

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Quite simply, this a work of outstanding quality and substance and von Trier has opened up a whole new can of possibilities. He’s somehow managed to cross the boundary between pornography and mainstream filmmaking and delivers an ethical hypothesis that’s by turns comedic, sensationalist and intimate but does require a progressive open-mindedness in order to be receptive to it’s provocative themes. Trust me, leave your conservative mind at the door and, as a complete whole, embrace a true work of art.

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Mark Walker

Trivia: Shia LaBeouf was asked to send pictures of his penis in order to obtain his role. He subsequently decided to send in personal sex tapes of him and his girlfriend having sex in order to convince Lars von Trier to cast him

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61 Responses to “Nymphomaniac: Volumes I & II”

  1. “If that’s not enough to wet a voracious vulva…” – a sentence I never thought I’d ever read! Ha!

    Wow man, this is high praise indeed. I really want to check this out, but no cinemas were showing it near me so i’m gonna have to wait for the Blu, but it looks like a really intriguing one.

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    • Ha! I couldn’t resist throwing that line in there. This film certainly concerns a voracious vulva but it’s so much more that. I really admire von Trier’s intelligence and sheer refusal to be conventional. The film does have its flaws here and there but as a complete experience, I haven’t seen anything quite like it. Cheers Chris.

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  2. A very interesting review mate – I will try and watch this at home at some point in the future. I have barely scratched the surface with von Trier and will delve a little deeper this year and next, hopefully.

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    • Thanks Stu! Having a previous experience with von Trier is essential but you really should know what you’re delving into. He’s highly controversial but he’s not simply out to shock. He has a level of intelligence and insight that few other directors have. I loved this film and definitely one of his best. If you’re looking for other recommendations, I’d check our Dogville, Melancholia and Breaking The Waves. AntiChrist was also very good but a lot of people criticised it heavily. Once you get into his mindset, you realise the man’s an artist.

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      • I’ve seen Melancholia and enjoyed it a lot, but haven’t seen the others; Dogville is the one I will try and catch next then. Cheers!

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      • I’m going to be revisiting some von Trier myself as I’ve not got many reviews of his work. Dogville is on my cards for a rewatch as well. I actually think it’s my favourite from him but be prepared, it’s delivered more like a stage play than a movie.

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  3. Oh, Shia. LOL. Great post, Mark. I believe you when you profess this is art in its “unrepentant boldness and audacity”. Your admiration for von Trier is evident and I’m glad you liked his efforts. The shock factor of the film reminds me of an art show back in 1999 called ‘Sensation’. British artists shocking the hell out of the world. I saw the exhibit in Brooklyn. I bet you would love it–macabre, fascinating, disturbing, pushing the envelope kind of art–like Nymphomania.

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    • Shia does have his critics (almost as much as von Trier for that matter) but he delivers a decent performance here. Unfortunately, his accent is really bad. It’s somewhere between English and South African but I’m not entirely sure what he was doing. Besides that, though, this is without doubt a work of work. Even though it has it’s flaws, as a complete experience I couldn’t give it any less than top marks. It’s yet another von Trier film that really pushes the boundaries. I am, admittedly, a big fan of his. He’s one of my favourite directors.

      That art show “sensations” you speak of sounds very interesting. I’ll definitely look into that a little. I love stuff that shocks and challenges public perceptions.

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      • Do you remember the film ‘The Cell’ with Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn? I loved it, by the way. That art, the scene with the cow chopped up and one can look through the pieces but still see the heart beating–that was an exhibit at Sensation.

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      • I remember the film but I can’t remember that scene. I do like Tarsem Singh. He’s another that I find very artistic. I think I’ll have to revisit that one. I liked it but it’s been years since I’ve seen it.

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  4. Nice work on this, Muckers! I don’t know if you know or not but I fucking HATED Antichrist. I gave Melancholia a shot and I loved the beginning and the end but hated the shaky cam. I’ll still give these a shot.

    Does Gainsbourg take a hunk of wood to anyone’s boner and then beat him off?

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    • Gracias Amigo. I know AntiChrist isn’t everyone idea of a family movie but I really liked it. If it’s viewed from the perspective that Satan created Earth instead of God then it works so much better. I’m not religious at all but I think this was a great idea from von Trier.
      I honestly couldn’t say if you’d enjoy Nympho but I thought it was marvellous but, alas, no! Gainsbourg doesn’t whack a guy on the knob and wank him off afterwards but there are plenty more sexual delights to be had ;)

      Boat Drinks!

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  5. ray brayne Says:

    Seligman’s analysis and analogies make the film(s). Without it Joe’s story would be quite empty. Not since “Eyes Wide Shut” has there been such a controversial sex based movie. Nympho borrows a bit from Kubrick’s classic, even some of the music, but this film goes deeper. “Nympho…” will never be seen by a wide audience, the cutting needed for the U.S. market would be massive. But it’s an important must see flik none the less. I can’t remember a film so divided by criticism. Most professional critics love it, most viewers despise it. Dispite this, cinema needs more like it. Daring, thought provoking, challenging, I loved it. I wish it would open wide in the States, it would be a real test for Freedom of Speech laws.

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    • Agreed Ray! Without Seligman, the film would have came across completely different and would rightly be open to criticism. But because of his insight (which is obviously von Trier) the film takes on a completely different mould. It’s an outstanding piece of work that I’ve been unable to stop thinking of since I seen it last week. It did have flaws here and there and the ambiguous ending didn’t sit well with me but overall, it’s just filled with intelligence and philosophical ramblings that are hard to shake off. To put it simply, it’s art! Absolutely magnificent!

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  6. Wow Mark, absolutely stunning write-up here! I remember we talked a while back about this over on my site :). Recently finished volume 2 and you were right, need to view the film as a whole, not two separate parts. Although volume 2 is incredible, you need the first to set it up, make the characters worth while, you know?

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    • We did chat a little about it, Joseph and now that time has past, I look forward to your take on part II. There’s no doubt that this is one complete film. I was lucky enough to view it as a complete whole and I reckon that’s how it should be. It’s a wonderful piece of work that still has you thinking and pondering days on end. That for me, is the mark of a great movie

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  7. daveackackattack Says:

    Having seen all of Trier’s movies but Madea, The Boss of It All and Melancholia (It’s been in my Netflix queue forever)… this one seems right up his alley. It’s hard to think of a more controversial filmmaker than him. Maybe the team of Larry Clark/Harmony Korine are in the discussion with Kids, Bully, Ken Park, Gummo and Trash Humpers. You can’t even put John Waters in that category now, I mean jeez he’s celebrated on Broadway with Hairspray! The thing is with Trier’s infamous Cannes/Hitler press conference a few years back I can’t help but feel Trier is toying with us a bit. Watching Kristen Dunst squirm here is just priceless as Lars talks himself into a sentence he can’t get out of which ultimately got him banned from Cannes.

    The cast is great and Gainsbourg is one of the most daring actresses out there but my reservation with this film is the LeBeoufster. He’s on my short list of actors I just can’t watch let alone see his penis on screen. Maybe if he’d worn a bag on his head for the film… then I’d be more eager. LoL. I think I cooled off on Trier after Antichrist but I’m sure I’ll eventually see it in due time. Especially after your review.

    You know Mark, I can’t even imagine seeing this in a theater and I’ve seen Cronenberg’s NC-17 Crash in the theater. They actually carded me twice to get in. At the ticket counter and at the theater door. I said to them “I’d have an easier time getting into a porno theater.” LoL.

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    • Hey Dave! I’ve yet to catch up with some of von Trier’s earlier films myself. I haven’t seen Zentropa, The Element of Crime or Madea and The Boss of It All but I’ve seen the rest and he’s always on fine form. I’d say he is the most controversial filmmaker we have at present and I agree that he’s is certainly is playing on his reputation somewhat. That Cannes outburst had to a publicity stunt of some sort.

      That aside, though, there’s no doubt that the man has an level of intelligence and very interesting insight into things.

      Again, Gainsbourg is great here. I haven’t seen any actress commit to a role the way she does but if you have reservations about LeBeouf, then you’re likely to judge him again in this. I actually thought he delivered a decent performance but he is the weak link.

      Hope you catch this soon, man. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on it.

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  8. Nice work, at least you’re focusing on the story and not the nudity that everyone seems to be talking about. I mean what were people expecting of a film with the title Nymphomaniac?

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  9. I was going to watch this anyway, but I’m delighted it’s been given the thumbs up by your good self. Von Trier is a one-of-a-kind and no mistake. Great review Mark.

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  10. Now that is what I call a positive review. :-)

    And it gets me incredibly excited to see the film! Great work, Mark!

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  11. Excellent review Mark!

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  12. Wow, praise indeed. Now that is what I call a write up. Lars sounds like a fearless director and I really need to catch more of his work soon. Nymphomaniac 1 & 2 and Antichrist are now in the must watch queue. Cheers Mark

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    • Thanks a lot Allan. This film is something else, man. Admittedly, von Trier isn’t to everyone’s tastes but he certainly is fearless and commands respect for being so. Hope you get as much of a kick out of this as I did. Cheers man!

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  13. Terrific review. I’m not familiar with von Trier’s films, this sounds like one I’d wait to watch in the comfort on my own couch. Neat trivia on how Shia LaBeouf got the role.

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  14. Fantastic work sir. Very funny and optimistic. I greatly look forward to seeing this, although for me too it will probably be a rental or Netflix because I don’t see any theaters near me putting this one on.

    Side note: I hope the sex tape LeBeouf sent in was a terribly awkward bit of sex. That kid sucks! X)

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    • Haha! Another LeBeouf critic, I see? I don’t think he’s too bad. In person, I think he’s a bit of an asshole but his performance is pretty good here (even with an abysmal accent). Hope you do catch this, though, Tom. It looks like the type of film that will pass many people by and that would be a shame.

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  15. Excellent writing Mark! You’ve certainly convinced me that I need to see this. Sadly it hasn’t been showing near me. But I think I’ve seen it for rental on a few sites so will check it out soon.

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  16. “Yes, I said masticate… That’s just your dirty minds taking hold already.” – I just love this.

    Excellent review. I might look into this at some stage.

    As for the trivia… wtf?! Above and beyond I suppose.

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    • Haha! There were a few lines I couldn’t resist, Zoe, and that was one of them. To be honest, I thought I had to be a bit playful with the review as too many people are taking the film far too seriously. Von Trier shows a humour too.

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  17. Excellent review, Mark. I’ve been very curious about this film(s) but I haven’t had the time for them yet. Hope to see them soon.

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  18. Interested in seeing this, but with its length and subject matter it is going to be difficult to find a place and time to watch this when this is out on DVD (as I do most of my movie watching on the go)

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    • I thought I might have been faced with the same problem Nostra, but I managed to free up some time and went for it in its entirety. I’m really glad I did, though. It was brilliant. Try not to miss out.

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  19. A really impressive review dude. I’ve not seen much of his work, but I do like people who challenge the viewer so i shall have to change that.

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  20. Excellent review! I still need to get around to watching both parts. I’m hearing a lot of great things about Uma Thurman – obviously you agree!

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    • Cheers man! Yeah, if you get a chance, watch them both together. It’s makes for a more fulfilling experience. Thurman isn’t in it all that much but her brief appearance is quite powerful.

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  21. I’m not smart enough to watch these movies. Also probably not mature enough as I giggled in my head every time you said a dirty word in your review. ; ) Great review, though! : ) I’ll watch Riget first…

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  22. I keep hearing so much about this I want to see it! Good review as always … is that Rammstein in the trailer… lol.

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  23. I was intrigued enough with Volume I to watch Volume II so that’s saying something. All of the humor that made the first part rather intriguing was absent in the second part. I found the narrative surprisingly repetitive and dull. Some interesting ideas but overall didn’t feel that this had anything new to say. I can appreciate your thoughtful review although the film just didn’t captivate me.

    P.S. Reading through the comments, I want to clarify that this did get a U.S. release and it played in theaters as two separate films although it was not rated.

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    • That’s promising that it received a U.S. release, Mark. I’m glad to hear that von Trier’s work is reaching further afield. Sorry to hear you found it dull, though. That’s understandable but I always find von Trier stuff very intriguing. So much so, that I’m always filled with anticipation whenever he releases a new film. As you can see, I wasn’t disappointed in this but the ending left me a little frustrated. That’s the only drawback for me.

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  24. A simply captivating movie. I’ve watched both the volumes. Biblical elements are found here and there which brings knowledge as well as deep insight to how things work. I can’t forget the example of 40 lashes. commendable!

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