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Nymphomaniac: A Movie Review
If you are unfamiliar with the work of Von Trier then this film will more than likely shock the pants off you. Four hours long, in two volumes, and with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard this film has a simply premise: A woman obsessed with the 'sensation' of sex.
Von Trier is a director that gambles and invents with his film making. Many of his earlier works have shocked and provoked debate from viewers such as 'Dogville' and 'AntiChrist', which have epitomized his film making. He wants to provoke discussion, explore diverse areas of reality, and above all, be entertaining. He achieves all of these qualities in Nymphomaniac seamlessly.
As a pre-warning to the films tongue in cheek look at adolescent sexuality through to adult worries, the poster released contained the characters, naked, in a state of sexual release. Its funny to see, something usually so private and personal, now up front, unashamed and for all to witness. This is the warning that the film will have the same statement.
Just a note though, the films are long and complex with many little chapters, so I will be breezing through a lot of it to get through, and also so the whole movie isn't ruined if you haven't already seen it.
The film opens with Joe (Gainsbourg) lying on the ground, beaten. Seligman, a kind older man, helps her inside, tucks her into bed and gives her tea. She begins to recount her story which she assured him, and the viewers, will change our perception of her, we will likely think little of her by the end, but Seligman says nothing she says can shock him.
And so her confessional story unfurls, from adolescent sexual acknowledgment into her teens where she made every attempt to re-experience the ''Sensation' she gets from sex. We see her wanting to rid herself of her virginity, so she visits a local mechanic who does the job quicker than he can open a car trunk. It's a humerus affair, meant to be taken lightly. We then see her playing a game on a train with her friend to see who can get the most men, and the prize? Chocolate, of course. they are only teenagers. The film does not dehumanize Joe, or humiliate or judge her for her sexual needs, in fact it looks at her with empathy. A woman who desires living in a world where women simply can't want those things openly. Throughout her story, Seligman interrupts her constantly, examining events that she portrays as the bad side of her, but which he analytically describes as natural, sexual awakening.
She continues to tell him stories of how she had several men on the go at the same time, with the funniest of scenes so far, which includes Uma Therman as the wife of a man who has left his family for Joe, who in turn wants nothing to do with him. Therman arrives at her door, kids in tow to show them the 'Wh*re Bed' where daddy had been spending all of his time.
Vol 1 ends with Joe, now in a relationship with the mechanic, Jerome, she lost her virginity to years previously (in a humerus scene where coincidence is not taken lightly by Seligman, Jerome once a mechanic, now working in an office, the same office where Joe looks for work). She has lost 'the sensation' and can't achieve sexual gratification, possibly the worst thing that can happen to a nymphomaniac.
Possibly the Best Scene in the Film...
Vol 2 begins with Joe, still in Seligmans house, recounting her story as a worthless human being incapable of human emotion, other than lust. As humerus and casual as Vol 1 was however, Vol 2 lacks in this ease of portrayal,and feels a little Limp as it takes on the form of a more serious discussion on sex, and the relationships concerned with it. Still with Jerome, now her husband, and no ability to achieve sexual release, he gives her permission to get with other men. She indulges with great enthusiasm, even going to the extreme of meeting two strange men in a hotel room, and visiting the mysterious K, who hurts women for money. Its through K that she finally gets what's she was missing, and in doing so, she leaves her child alone night after night to visit him. She eventually leaves both baby and husband, as she feels society has no place for her. And she's right. Society is not yet ready to accept woman's sexuality completely. As Seligman explains at the end, everything that she had done in her life would not have been considered wrong if it were committed by a man. Trolling a train looking for women, meeting more than one woman at a time, none of this unusual for a man, but for a woman its less than desired behavior.
Again Seligman interrupts her story to comment on this or that, how her technique of finding the right man for the job is similar to fly fishing, or how religious ideals differ from one country to the other, similar to her idea of visiting a woman beater to finally receive pleasure, when she never knew she could from such violence,
She finally asks Seligman why he does not get excited by her stories. He responds that he is asexual, with no interest in either male or females. It makes sense that his detachment from the stories comes from his lack of sexuality. It is possibly why Joe calls him a friend at the end of the film. She acknowledges that he is un-judging of her rampant sexuality and she feels open and relaxed in his presence.
The Final Chapter:
The saga ends with her story coming full circle, the incident that left her beaten and bruised on the path. In yet another miraculous coincidence, she finally meets Jerome, now all grown up, again through her work, as a debt collector who performs debasing acts on men in order to get them to pay up. After she finds a successor 'J', (its a good business), they end up at Jeromes house, she recognizes it and allows her protégé to take charge of the shake down. He sets up a payment plan off all things, so that he pays his debt in installments with J collecting every week. Joe feels that something is wrong and goes to the house on the night of the final payment, only to catch both Jerome and J together. In the end she attempts to kill Jerome, but the gun doesn't work, so he beats her, has a quicky with J in front of the bloody Joe, then leaves.
Overall the films were fantastic, Vol 2 may have been a bit more serious than the previous, but Joes age could have had a factor in that. Vol 1 was lighthearted, unabashed and fun, because Joe was young, and naïve and thought everything was fun. Its a reflection of we percieve ourselves, and sometimes only see the worst in ourselves. By Vol 2, which centers on Joe as an adult, with a child and maturer thoughts and ideas of fun, we finally see that our personal reflections are often misunderstood, and it takes an outside perspective to truly see. So naturally, Vol 2 would be a more serious look at Joe. She herself, contemplates the evilness of everything she has done, but comes to the realization, through Seligman's help, that she was not all that evil. She is her own woman, with her own needs, and although society wasn't able to deal with her promiscuity, she accepted that her needs were simply different to others.
So far, the films were amazing, upbeat, tongue in cheek yet serious and exploratory. It's definitely seen through the female gaze (see Laura Mulvey's essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'), something that's not common in film, so although we get the various shots of exposed female bodies, there's much more exposed men in there that some might not be able to watch in comfort. Where films have always been shown through the male gaze, everything done to arouse the male watching it, . 'Nymphomaniac' is almost androgynous in its exposing of bodies, maybe because the protagonist herself is quite androgynous, having relationships with both men and women. Joe doesn't lust after the male body, rather, she lusts after anything that can give her that 'Sensation'.
I enjoyed both films, equally as entertaining and exploring of the complexities of sex in the modern world for everyone as young as children through to maturity. Its encompasses many real experiences for some people, ie, losing her virginity in 20 seconds flat, while looking at a woman that has been shunned and talked of all her life because of her sexuality.
Why 4 out of 5?
Overall both films were great, however, they lose a star for the last 90 seconds of Vol 2. Without giving it away, it turns everything that had happened in the film up until that point upside down, and blatantly gives the finger to audiences who have spend four hours watching the friggin' thing. I thought maybe I had lost something in translation, looked it up and it turns out I didn't, it was simply a f**k you to audiences, one I didn't appreciate.