The Lars Von Trier sexual epic has had its fair share of controversy since the film(s) have been released. And probably rightfully so. Any movie that is a near four-hour epic telling of a woman’s sexual escapades is likely to do so.
And with the graphic nudity and penetrative sex scenes, it is even more likely, for a mostly conservative viewership.
Nudity later, film first.
The movie itself is about Joe, a woman who is found battered on the streets and taken in by a reclusive scholar, played creepily well by Stellan Skarsgaard. He is an unexperienced man, ready to hear Joe’s long, sexual tale about how she ended up beaten on that street. She recounts the story of how she discovered her sexuality at a young age, and grew up as a nymphomaniac, needing sex as often as she could get it. As a young woman, she balanced her schedule in order to sleep with up to 10 different men per night, and was truly insatiable.
Over the course of the story, which happens primarily in flashbacks, we cut to the present telling of the story, where Joe recovers in a bed in the man’s apartment. Every now and then, he will throw in strange comparisons to her story: the Fibonacci sequence, fly fishing, Roman torture strategies. It is all a bit odd, and during Volume 1 of Nymphomaniac, some of the comparisons are quite laughable, making their exchanges even more odd.
The story of Joe, however, becomes fairly interesting, whether we want it to or not. Certainly, she is a bit of a sexual deviant, and the desire for sex drives her to make choices that we could not see the average person making. But at some point during the films, we start to care about how she ended up on the street, in the state that she was in.
There are some strong acting performances throughout the film, including a small role by Uma Thurman, and a pretty good performance by Shia Leboeuf as Joe’s lover/boss/husband.
As a movie, Nymphomaniac is pretty decent. But comparing it to similar films of sexual self-discovery, such as the incredible Blue is the Warmest Colour, it doesn’t really hold a candle. We get little in the way of explanation why she craves her desires so deeply: we only understand that she does.
In the end, the lesson is taught by Skarsgaard, before a bit of a surprising ending, to say the least. He discusses the role of the genders, and Joe’s place within that, and many of her decisions being questioned because she is a woman, instead of a man. It makes sense, and it finally, after hours, adds some needed thought-provoking depth to the film.
Of course, the controversial nudity needs to be discussed. Yes, there is a lot of nudity, both male and female. Watching this film, you will see things that you only would typically see in a film of the X variety, such as oral sex, full frontal closeups, and sex that includes penetration (the actors didn’t engage in this sex, adult actors were used as body doubles). I guess it could be considered surprising, but let’s be honest: the majority of people who would be watching this film have definitely seen more graphic acts on their screens. As with most films that garner controversy due to sexuality, it really is much ado about nothing. Yes, you see actress Stacy Martin (who plays young Joe) nude almost as much as you see her clothed. You see her in a variety of sexual positions, and it can be quite explicit. But the scenes are never long, as they are in Blue, and it frequently seemed that they were over, shown in quick vignettes, before you could really become offended.
Overall, Nymphomaniac Volume 1 and 2 are decent films, that happen to have a lot of sex in them. It really is an interesting tale of a woman’s struggle with an addiction, and the depths that it will lead her to. Some aspects of the story are quite ridiculous, but this is a genuinely decent set of films. It can encourage debate between gender roles, and our societal views of sexual behavior, as well as the ever-blurred line of art and pornography.
Don’t worry about the hype and the controversy: check it out for yourself, and formulate your own opinion.