- Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013) movie review: In this narrative about a woman actualizing her urge to have sex – a lot of it, wherever she can find it – Lars von Trier proves once again that he is a cinematic genius.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I movie review: Despite all the ‘explicit sex’ ballyhoo, Lars von Trier’s starkly funny effort neither shocks nor offends
It will be noted long after this review is filed deep in the bowels of some ancient digital archive of dead film critics that Lars von Trier was among the most contentious and brilliant filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries. This would not be a currently agreed-upon assessment of the filmmaker; nevertheless, von Trier is an actual genius, as opposed to the myriad filmmakers called “genius” who are actually just clever.
It should also be noted that I’ve been saying this about Lars von Trier since the first of his Golden Heart films, Breaking the Waves, provoked Cannes Film Festival audiences nearly two decades ago. This 1995 psychological drama is a seminal von Trier movie that marked the initial international exposure of an artist whose work has been controversial for any number of reasons – some related to the films themselves, others to the filmmaker himself.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is von Trier’s current incendiary device and it will have much the same effect as every feature he has made since Breaking the Waves. Each one is a little nugget of genius – a true statement whether or not I personally liked them.
As it happens, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I I like very much.
Of course, in addition to being an actual genius Lars von Trier can also be something of an idiot, which, ironically, is the title of one of his more intriguing films: The Idiots (1998), the second installment in his Golden Heart Trilogy.
Yet von Trier has been called worse, including a “woman-hating sadist” by Dancer in the Dark leading lady Björk, who swore off films after working with him on this Palme d’Or-winning 2000 musical – the third film in the Golden Heart series and von Trier’s most piercing to date. (The final scene is still nearly unbearable.)
More recently, von Trier had some things to say about Nazis that were both idiotic and mostly taken out of context. In that instance, his infamous propensity for saying provocative and sometimes just plain dumb stuff was also ignored.
That inclination of his is one reason why some years ago I called him a “subversive show-off” in a capsule review of The Five Obstructions, a movie he directed with noted (and equally scandalous) Danish filmmaker/poet Jørgen Leth. It’s a lovely experimental film informed by Leth’s 1967 experimental short The Perfect Human.
And that serves as a reminder that – like Leth and his other principal influences, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Alejandro Jodorowsky – Lars von Trier is also an experimental filmmaker. Certainly, his theatrical features have been fundamentally conceived as experiments in the cinematic storytelling process, from the self-imposed austerity of Dogme95 to the chalk outlines and imaginary sets of his “The USA: Land of Opportunities” trilogy: Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman in a career performance; Manderlay, with Bryce Dallas Howard; and the as yet unproduced Washington.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I and Vol. II are also experiments. At the very least, Vol. I proves again my thesis on the filmmaker: Lars von Trier is a subversive show-off, an actual genius, and an idiot. Not necessarily in that order.
Funniest + least repellent experiment
The two Nymphomaniac movies were originally conceived as one four-hour feature to be screened as such. Together they make up the third film in von Trier’s “Depression” trilogy, which also includes Antichrist and the European Film Award winner Melancholia, while all together they are the “mad scientist” of cinema’s grandest experiments yet.
Chronicling a series of stories told by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) about her childhood and young adult exploits as a self-described nymphomaniac, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is by far the funniest, starkest, least repellent, and truest to human nature of these intriguing experiments in filmmaking.
The pubescent and young adult Joe is played with staggering daring by newcomer Stacy Martin – an indescribable beauty who is meant to be exactly that. Her empty doe-eyed stare belies a knowing that the young actress can turn on like a switch; and suddenly, like her many, many conquests in the film, you are the one who feels seduced, used, and discarded.
Neither ‘shocking’ nor ‘offensive’ (or ‘profound’)
Now, here’s one thing Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is not: Shocking – not even remotely so. Unless, that is, you find shocking ordinary human sexual inclinations at any stage of life.
Something else Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is not: Offensive. Unless the natural processes of nature (vegetable and animal) offend.
Moreover, the ideas in the film are not – nor are they meant to be – profound, though they are not the fodder of ordinary conversation either, even among friends.
Not being shocking or offensive – or profound – isn’t what makes Nymphomaniac: Vol. I a movie that “isn’t bad.” Instead, these are among the reasons it’s so damn good. For if Nymphomaniac truly shocked or offended it would be open to legitimate hostility toward its images, which are graphic in their depiction of nudity and sex acts. If it reached for the profound, it would be mocked by intellectual snobs who have all “been there and done that.”
Human behavior-based ideas
To the contrary, its ideas are simple: Human behavior-based concepts that are communicated with words and pictures by way of Lars von Trier’s particular range of styles and visual constructions.
In fact, the film is about what it says it’s about: A girl who discovers her body and her sensuality, and who really likes to fuck – and so she does – and how that might play out in a world that doesn’t like girls who like to and do fuck.
Lastly, Nymphomaniac Vol. I, of course, is about love. Depressing, possibly, but only if you care about the rules, which you needn’t do.
And that is also what Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is about: We shouldn’t pay too much attention to the rules of sexual propriety or worry too much about the consequences of breaking them because in the end we’re all screwed anyway.
‘Simulated’ real sex
In preface to seeing Nymphomaniac: Vol. I and Vol. II – or any Lars von Trier film for that matter – there are a couple of things one should consider.
First, Lars von Trier – like Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg before him – is a fake “von.” They all added the preposition to their surnames to add a measure of nobility – and theatricality – to their personal presentations.
Von Trier, in fact, still adds a measure of theatricality to everything, mostly for show. Which is to say the very real-looking sex scenes in the Nymphomaniac movies are about as “real” as the “von” in von Trier. It would be silly to get upset about them, but then again von Trier would say it’d also be silly to get upset about them even if his actors had actually had sex.
All to annoy mom
Second, Lars von Trier has said that all of his films are intended to irritate his mother, a free-thinking communist nudist who did not believe in rules and did not follow them. At one point in her life, Mrs. Trier had an affair with Fritz Michael Hartmann, former head of Denmark’s Ministry of Social Affairs, who it turns out is von Trier’s biological father – a fact that he didn’t learn until his mother was on her deathbed in 1989.
This doesn’t imply a case of nymphomania on mom’s part, but it does reinforce the idea that von Trier is trained by both nature and nurture to explore uncharted territories and not to conform.
Given von Trier’s ironist inclinations, it’s difficult to discern whether his attempts at irritating his mom are meant to please or displease. One suspects the director would likely take pleasure either way.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)
Direction & Screenplay: Lars von Trier.
Cast: Shia LaBeouf. Stacy Martin. Charlotte Gainsbourg. Stellan Skarsgård. Uma Thurman. Christian Slater. Sophie Kennedy Clark. Hugo Speer. Connie Nielsen. Jesper Christensen. James Northcote. Christoph Schechinger. Simon Böer. Tomas Spencer. Saskia Reeves.
“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013) Movie Review” endnotes
Shia LaBeouf and Stacy Martin Nymphomaniac: Vol. I movie images: Magnolia Pictures.
“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I Movie (2013) Review: Genius von Trier” last updated in December 2021.