If I’ve to summarise this 4 hours of pretentious crap in a single sentence, then Nymphomaniac (stylized as Nymph()maniac) is simply a bland & banal softcore pornography that features an ensemble cast of mainstream actors and which its filmmaker is trying to sell as a work of art. It is the third & final entry in Lars von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” (preceded by Antichrist & Melancholia) but has no relation whatsoever with the stories present in those two. Being on the controversy radar since its announcement, throughout its production & even more after its release, Nymphomaniac arrives in two volumes (just like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill) and, as expected, is destined to polarize its audience & stir new controversies with its graphic depiction of sexuality. Also, because I watched both the volumes back-to-back, the following is going to function as a review for both Volume I & Volume II.
The movie opens with a middle-aged woman lying unconscious & badly beaten up in an alleyway but is discovered by an old bachelor named Seligman, who brings her to his apartment & tends to her wounds. On asking about what led to her current predicament, the woman identifies herself as Joe & claims to be a nymphomaniac. And over the next 8 chapters presented in 2 volumes, she recounts her entire life story that covers her life’s sexual endeavours from infancy to her present age, culminating with what led her into his care. Seligman himself being a widely read man listens intently to Joe’s erotic life & analyses as well as connects her stories with the literary works he is aware of. Volume I comprises of 5 chapters & covers Joe’s young life, her relationship with her father, her rendezvous with different men & her unexpected falling in love. Volume II comprises of 3 chapters & covers the darker side of Joe’s life as we see her experimentation with sex becoming increasingly violent, her nymphomania taking control over her life & eventually her descent into the world of crime.
Director Lars von Trier is already notorious in the cinema world for his impishness, his desire to remain in the limelight whether for a good cause or bad & he seems to take extreme pleasure in shocking his audience with graphic imagery in his works. And now, with Nymphomaniac, he might have just crafted his most sexually explicit feature till date. But what’s sad about it is that the story is downright boring, the overly stretched philosophical conversations present in the film serve only as fillers between Joe’s sexual romps and even the explicit sex scenes some of its viewers have been bragging about are simply dull, tasteless & lacking in intimacy. In the writing section, almost entire screenplay is devoid of any emotions and same goes with most of its scripted characters who are completely hollow, uninteresting, one-dimensional & incapable of evoking any feelings. Also, thanks to its lethargic pace, both volumes end up feeling far more tedious than their actual runtime.
Out of the two volumes, Volume I turned out to be much better than Volume II for it exhibits little moments that are darkly comic & even seems to have a sense of direction yet there is no denying that the story remains largely ineffective for the most part. Volume II takes a darker approach right from its opening moments when compared to the relatively light-hearted plot of the previous volume & shows the director upping the extremity factor by throwing in elements of sadomasochism & pedophilia into its tale, plus even going as far as to sympathise with those pedophiles who don’t get to live their fantasies in real-life, all of this done just to amplify its shock value & repel/disgust its viewers. Throughout its runtime, there is a constant clash of what society wants to accept & what society will never accept but there isn’t enough substance to back it up. I’ve no issues whatsoever with the depiction of a woman trying to embrace her sexuality but how this cinema chooses to express it on the film canvas makes it look more like a work of exploitation than exploration.
Still, not everything about Nymphomaniac sucks though considering that there has to be something that managed to make me sit through the whole fucking 4 hours, even though I stopped expecting anything good from it very early into the story. And that credit belongs to the fine performances delivered by its ensemble cast who manage to impress despite the uninteresting characters they end up playing. With a cast consisting of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Christian Slater, Mia Goth & others, it’s surprising that Stacy Martin is the one who delivers the most impressive performance amongst all in what is actually her feature film debut. Playing the young version of Joe, Martin carries the first volume all on her own & her work is seductive, enticing & alluring. Yet in my opinion, it’s actually Uma Thurman who steals the show in her short but spectacular rendition of Mrs. H; the distressed wife of Mr. H (Hugo Speer), who leaves her & their 3 children for Joe.
Throughout Volume I, Charlotte Gainsbourg serves her part as only the narrator of this story while Stacy Martin wonderfully depicts Joe’s erotic life. But in Volume II, Gainsbourg takes center stage to build on the performance of Martin and although what she does here isn’t easy to sit through but she still impresses the most amongst the rest. Stellan Skarsgård also gets to do more as Seligman than just be an avid listener to Joe’s sexual escapades but the resolution of his character is absolutely idiotic as the movie was doing pretty well in giving him a wise, caring & trustworthy personality through the implied notion of friendship, only to throw it all out of the window in its final moments. LaBeouf plays Jerôme; Joe’s first partner who keeps recurring in her later life while Jamie Bell is in as K; a sadomasochist whom Joe visits regularly to revive her lost interest in sex. Christian Slater nicely chips in as Joe’s father & the scenes between these two are the only moments when the emotions feel somewhat authentic, most notably in the 4th chapter named “Derilium”.
On an overall scale, Nymphomaniac has little moments (mostly present in Volume I) which manage to work in its favour but for the most part, it remains a cold, boring & incomplete cinematic experience as well as a pathetic example of filmmaking which although delivers the shocks it promised but also leaves its audience far more frustrated than satisfied in the end, thanks to its lazy direction, lifeless script, sluggish pace, dull photography, monotonous sex scenes, terrible editing, fragmented use of music & unnecessary padding through its nonsensical philosophy. You might have already guessed by now that it’s not for every viewer, especially those who are easily distressed or are not into extreme cinema but I would also add that it’s not a recommendation if you want to see an intriguing drama & it’s certainly not a good choice if all you want to see is some sizzling bedroom chemistry. Failing with the pretentious crap it was selling in the name of art & faring even worse when viewed as a porno, Nymphomaniac is one of the worst motion pictures to come out in recent years. Avant-garde of filmmaking, my ass! Waste your time & money on something else.