film review – Nymphomaniac, Volumes I & II

Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier’s story of the self-professed nympho Joe, isn’t as shocking as its marketing campaign and its director would have you believe. It’s also definitely not pornographic: porn is supposed to entice and arouse its viewers and both volumes of Nymphomaniac certainly don’t do so. What Von Trier’s film actually achieves, is a lot harder to explain. He has main character Joe recount her life experiences to a man who’s found her lying bloodied and unconscious in an alleyway, a story she conveniently divides up in individual segments like Lars himself has been doing for a few films now. The result is a film that’s at times very unpleasant, at times darkly comical, at times poetic, but always quite conflicted in what tone it’s trying to set and what it’s actually about.

At least Von Trier has created another tortured and intriguing heroine with Joe and both actresses who portray her, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin who play older and young Joe respectively, do an amazing job at making her mysterious despite the detail she goes into regarding her life and, as she calls it, sins. Gainsbourg also always embues her character with an adventurousness, sass and curiosity that make her conversations with Stellan Skarsgård’s character in present day a joy to watch. It’s an effective dynamic in which Joe tells her tale and Skarsgård’s Seligman offers her knowledge in return about religion, musical theory, literature and fly fishing among other things. The parallels offered are often insightful, interesting and as result very effective. Joe’s story itself feels very human too, not purely about her sexual desires, but also about her father, her political ideas, and more. Despite the acts her addiction lead to, Joe’s always quite likeable or at least relatable, a person looking for connection and fulfillment. It all comes together quite beautifully until we get to Nymphomaniac‘s second volume and Von Trier’s work starts to fall apart.

Right from the outset Nymphomaniac Volume II completely changes gears. The quite grounded plot gets injected with visions, shady criminals and a story surrounding James Bond’s weapon of choice, the Walther PPK. Gone is the focus on Joe’s struggle with her addiction and the one relatively steady relationship in her life with Shia LaBeouf’s Jerôme. The story gets dropped early on, to its credit for reasons that absolutely make sense in the context of Joe’s journey, but it doesn’t really get replaced with anything that has anything new or insightful to offer. Instead the subject matter becomes quite pulpy and guilty of trying to shock just for shock’s sake. Von Trier also starts to slip in speeches that feel forced, a step back from the introspective nature of Nymphomaniac‘s first half and its method of storytelling that offered room for multiple interpretations. An obvious callback to the director’s own Antichrist adds to the apparent self-indulgence at play in Volume II, an unfortunate turn for a project that, going by Volume I, could have been one of Lars von Trier’s best works.

Nymphomaniac is uneven, its first half great but the second half not at all. Von Trier second volume goes overboard with pulp and pretentiousness, leading to a disappointing ending and a passable end result. 5/10

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