Nymphomaniac Pt 1 (Denmark-France-Germany-Belgium-Sweden-UK 2013)

Uma Thurman, Hugo Speer and Stacey Martin. Speer's character wants to leave his wife (Thurman) and move in with Jo.

Uma Thurman, Hugo Speer and Stacey Martin. Speer’s character wants to leave his wife (Thurman) and move in with Jo.

I’m not sure why I wanted to see this film. I’d previously seen  only one Lars von Trier film (Dancer in the Dark, 2000), not wanting to see the others after reading about them. However, Nymphomaniac seems to have had some decent reviews and I thought I needed to see something else of the work of the provocateur extraordinaire since he clearly attracts audiences.

The ‘plot’ of Nymphomaniac explores the sexual life of Jo from her early teenage years to her late 40s. The narrative structure uses a long flashback so the film begins with the older Jo lying bruised and battered in an alleyway in a nondescript urban setting, where she is found by Seligman, an older man who has a small apartment close by. He takes her in and she begins to tell her story – how she became a nymphomaniac.

There is a strange lack of identity in the film. This European co-production is presented in English (the Press Pack is in American English – the character is written as ‘Joe’ which I would usually think of as a male name). This in itself is not unusual for an ‘international film’ but, though filmed mainly in Germany, various aspects of the dialogue suggest that this is supposed to be the UK. It’s not clear to me if von Trier is trying to present a kind of ‘everywhere’. It would make sense to do so as otherwise we might attempt to read something from the UK context. Perhaps the film is a Danish joke about British attitudes to sex?

It’s a big ask for a young actor to be on screen for so much of the film in her debut role, but Stacey Martin does very well as the young Jo. Many reviews have picked up on the brief but powerful cameo by Uma Thurman as an angry wife and mother. The rest of the cast are also good but I don’t think that the script helps them – or the flat lighting and drab mise en scène. I wasn’t really provoked or excited by what was shown except by the scenes of Jo with her father on his hospital bed which did seem to have some emotional content. The numerous explicit sex scenes are not erotic. OK perhaps there was the occasional flicker of eroticism, but I think it is safe to assume that von Trier’s intention is not necessarily to arouse. Much of it is tedious and especially the repeated dialogue exchanges in which Jo (in her older self played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) that she is a “bad human being” and he assures her that no such thing exists. I think we get the point Lars.

I think I’ll have to see Part 2 in order to say anything sensible about how I read the film. It’s slightly worrying that it might include more of the moralising banalities from Seligman  – and the chunks of erudition about fly fishing and other pursuits. On the other hand we will get more of the mature Jo played by Gainsbourg. Does Von Trier have something profound to tell us about nymphomania/sex addiction and/or the human spirit? Watch this space.

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4 comments

  1. keith1942

    I always want to see a new Lars Von Trier film: he is one of the most interesting directors around. I really enjoyed this film. It is very funny. There are a series of short scenes [a sort of montage) where Jo confides in a series of lovers – it made me laugh out loud.
    And I loved the exchanges between Jo and Seligman – it is like some medieval debate among theologians. Danish cinema has a strong tradition of addressing the ‘spiritual’, especially in the films of Carl Dreyer. Lars Von Trier has spoken about the influence of the latter filmmaker.

    Apparently Volume 2 is darker. I cannot wait to see it.

    One last thought: the end credits advise that none of the main cast perfomred actual sex, this was down to their doubles who seem to be from the porn film industry. Will Volume 2 address this moral issues?

    • Roy Stafford

      My problem is not so much ‘what’ is said but how it is represented. I just can’t engage with the film beyond wondering what he will try next.

      I’ve seen Part 2 and I’ll try to write something later.

      I don’t understand what the ‘moral issue’ is that you refer to in relation to the use of ‘sex doubles’. Is it any different to the use of stunt doubles in action scenes? Sex film performers are ‘professionals’ in terms of performing sexual acts for the cameras. Mainstream actors either can’t or would prefer not to perform in this way. There is a pragmatic solution in the use of doubles. Am I missing something here?

      • Roy Stafford

        I don’t buy the parallel between snuff movies and sex films. There is a health and safety issue about ‘real sex’ but that is something that actors and producers can sort out. As long as actors in hardcore porn filmmaking are not being coerced to perform or asked to risk their health it isn’t comparable with a snuff movie production. I take all your points about the philosophical debates and you are clearly engaged by them. I see von Trier as talented and intelligent but largely a provocateur who promotes himself and his films and therefore I tend to take everything that he shows us with a pinch of salt. When you see Part 2, I wonder what you will make of the ending. I do think that he has interesting ideas but perhaps others are better at putting them into practice – I liked Andrea Arnold’s Red Road which I think developed initially from a project he initiated.

  2. keith1942

    Well, the film appears to be a philosophical discussion about sexual activity: hence the simlarity to a medieval debate. And the discussion focuses on moral or ethical philosophy. So it seems it is alright for ‘professional sex workers’ to provide realistic sex, but not paid stars? And, of course there are other films [Winterbottom, Oshima] where the main players performed.
    And personally I do think there is a wider issue, just how far does representation require actual actions? When someone films a real murder it is a ‘snuff movie’.

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