When Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a woman passed out in a lane near his home, he takes her in and offers her shelter. It’s not long before Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells him the tale of her life as a self-diagnosed and confessed nymphomaniac. Joe’s tale starts from childhood and continues right until the moment Seligman found her.
When Lars Von Trier announced he was making a hardcore prom film with Charlotte Gainsbourg at that ill-fated Cannes press conference for Melancholia, the assembled all enjoyed a good laugh. Von Trier had been in jovial form all morning; surely this was another of his jokes? Surely not! Three years later and Nymphomaniac has come to fruition, but anyone going to see the film expecting some arty porn will surely be disappointed, there is very little sexy in either of the two films.
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe as a woman unashamed of the choices she has made in her life, but all to aware of the consequences of her actions. Joe neither looks for forgiveness nor finds it, but Gainsbourg is fascinating in the role, and makes a character who could easily be labelled a slut as a woman who is being punished for the decisions she has made. Stellan Skarsgard makes Seligman a voyeur on Joe’s life, and although he tries to tie her experiences to ones he understands from a lifetime of reading he ultimately does not understand her.
Joe’s lovers are numerous and mostly blend together, but Shia LaBoeuf stands out as Jerome, the man who finally makes an ‘honest woman’ of Joe, as does Jamie Bell as K, the man who indulges Joe further. LaBoeuf blends sleaze and conservatism as Jerome and, even though he demands to possess Joe, he never really understands her. Jamie Bell as K is at the other end of the scale; he demands nothing from Joe but her presence and it is this that ultimately destroys the relationship between them. Bell is brilliantly predatory in the role and equally caring and menacing.
Lars Von Trier has created a world around Joe that is almost mythical; but rather than the film be a tawdry affair of nudity and faked sex acts, it is a careful examination of sex and sexuality, and where this fits into our lives as a whole. Von Trier has an eye for detail and constantly focuses the film back on nature and death. Sex does feature strongly in the film – as one might expect – but after a while, it becomes mechanical and dull, leaving the audience free to focus on the motivations for sex, rather than the act itself. We are never truly given an understanding of Joe as a whole though, instead left to imagine her between the sheets, tied down or as sexual dominator.
Despite all claims to the contrary though, this is not a film that is favourable to women, the very fact that a film has to be made about a woman’s addiction to sex is another conversation entirely. Joe, as a character, does not come off the better for all her sexual adventures; she is repeatedly punished for wanting sex – and yes, to be punished – and ends the film as victim rather than victor. This begs the question, if this were a man’s story, would he be vilified in such a manner? Maybe, but in any other film we have seen about male promiscuity, the man has been made hero, not villain.
The cinematography of the film is rather lovely, and the framing device used to tell the story keeps it in check, never allowing Joe’s adventures to ramble or be unclear. That said, it does feel as though the tale could have been told in a much shorter time, and this is with the warning that the film has been edited from Von Trier’s original with his blessing, but without his involvement.
Despite the fact that women, once again, suffer at the hands of Von Trier, Nymphomaniac is an engaging and fascinating piece of work; the cinematography is gorgeous, the performances strong and – even though the whole affair is much too long – it is an engrossing study of sexuality on screen.