Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II (Trier, 2014)

Nymphomaniac

Though split into two volumes, this is truly one cohesive film, with motifs and stylistic choices seamlessly crossing between both efforts. I will, for this reason, not review the films as separate volumes but as a whole. I will mention, though, that I found Volume 1 to be stronger than Volume II.

Separated into five cogent parts, Lars Von Trier’s well-structured and highly technical Nymphomaniac (2014) boasts sophisticated storytelling, wit, and sardonic humour which raises the film far above the seeming superficiality of its plot. Though not without degrees of creativity, poetry, and indulgence, Nymphomaniac is an all-throughout rational, grounded, and sincere inquest on the justices not only of nymphomania but of morality and human behaviour.

Dialogue throughout the film shed much insight on the main character, Joe (Stacy Martin, Charlotte Gainsbourg). Though we may not relate to Joe’s practice, there is something profoundly human about her experience of life. Her suffering, loneliness, and yearning elicit our empathy. Though we remain without pity, we learn—as she does—how to accept her actions as an extension of her personal demons.

Supporting the validity of Joe’s surprisingly profound insights about human behaviour and sexuality is her ability to overcome Seligman’s (Stellan Skarsgard) pushbacks. Through witty dialogue, Joe consistently and stubbornly denies any of Seligman’s arguments. She lets only his vague but fascinating analogies through, and allows his wisdom put her at ease.

Edited with an almost mathematical precision, Trier’s work here is technically fortuitous. Shifting between expository and poetic modes, the films visual rhythm and visual motifs—rain, trees, cards, etc.—provides both versatility and cohesion. Distancing itself at times, Trier holds fast to the visual themes which bring the film’s parts together.

Musical motifs help to index the film, with melodic motifs drawing together parallel moments of the film’s story. In particular, Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, which ostensibly expresses the fibonnaci sequence, is quite intriguingly used to illustrate separate parts of Joe’s sexual personality. The use of this music, which is also found in Solaris, seems to be a nod to Tarkovsky, considering that several other objects of the film—seaweed flowing underwater, Andrei Rublev painting, “The Mirror” chapter—also recall Tarkovsky’s work.

Though I can’t imagine how he could have done it differently, a problem I have with the film is the use of two different actresses for the role of Joe. While this method of filmmaking does not normally bother me, I sense a thematic disagreement here insofar as the film is as much about desires of the flesh as it is desires of sexual pathology. Despite that Stacy Martin is a much more beautiful actress than Charlotte Gainsbourg, the problem here is that their sexual presence is quite different. Though we may overlook their physical differences, it is difficult to overcome the fact that these women, who are supposed to portray a particular woman’s sexual life, have significantly different sexual mannerisms. Their eyes, their gazes, are unique; it feels too strongly that they are different people.

Von Trier’s displays of sexual conduct are shot with technical precision. Though the people are beautiful, and there are moments of candid, rather pornographic images, the sex found in Nymphomaniac is not titillating and does not contract scopophilic pleasure. Rather, the pain and pleasure, discord and relief, are germane to the viewer’s understanding of Joe’s immediate impulsion and later repulsion of her own sexual encounters. The ending of the film, in its slightly shocking final gesture, demands that we the viewer consider Joe’s journey with sincerity. It also presents Von Trier making one final and powerful sardonic remark.

85/100 – Excellent

4 Stars

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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