Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 4 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Lars Von Trier
Written by: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Mia Goth & Udo Kier
Never one to shy away from controversy, Lars Von Trier has encountered a lot of scrutiny over his latest project. This four hour (original cut was nearly six hours) movie chronicles of the life of a sex addict. It also serves as the final film of Von Trier’s Depression Trilogy, which began with ANTICHRIST (an horrific near-masterpiece) and continued with MELANCHOLIA (a beautiful picture lowered by the weight of an uneven story). On a pretty asinine (money-grubbing) move from the studio, NYMPHOMANIAC has been split into two separate volumes (so thus costing double the money to see it as a whole). I did watch both volumes together as a one long movie and that’s the only way to experience Lars Von Trier’s concluding piece of his Depression Trilogy (if you’re interested in subjecting yourself to this material at all). NYMPHOMANIAC has wonderful stretches and manages to maintain a grasp on the viewer’s emotions. However, the sheer size of this film is ultimately what makes it a lesser experience than it could have been…along with pretentious nature that comes with the territory that is Lars.
The story opens on a beaten woman lying in a snowy alley. Her name is Joe and a kindly stranger, named Seligman, comes to her aid. In Seligman’s rundown apartment, Joe chronicles her life story for the curious man. She’s a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac and her addiction to sexual gratification has brought her to the point of winding up battered in that grimy alley. Her obsession with her sexuality started as a child and evolved as she grew older. Through Joe narrating scenes (that we are shown), we see her fuelling the ever-growing need for sex over the years. Her life story includes some possible love (though Joe claims to rebel against this notion), some light-hearted moments, and a whole lot of tragedy.
Breaking down the narrative, this is the story of one person (a female sex addict) relating the story of her life to another person (Seligman). The film plays out on a grander scale than merely that spanning different locations and colorful characters. The cast is littered with a lot of big name actors showing up in some big or significantly small (near cameo) roles. Everybody does a solid job (including Shia LaBeouf as Joe’s first lover). The chronicles of Joe are spaced over four full hours. Right there, you can find the film’s major flaw. NYMPHOMANIAC is too bloated. Even with 90 minutes already being removed from the original cut, there’s still plenty of room for edits that don’t benefit the story in any real way.
One of these key expendable things is the character of Seligman. Played by Stellan Skarsgard, Lars might have intended for this figure to represent the filmgoer’s reactions to Joe’s story. As a character, he interjects far too much with increasingly far-fetched theories about what may be causing Joe’s obsession with sex. Some people may seem to think that Seligman is an integral part of the story, but his role could have easily been summed up in a brief 5 minutes with Joe narrating. That in itself, might have cut about 40 minutes out of the running time.
Another overused technique that became annoying can be found in the overuse of archive footage in montages. When a character is discussing something as simple as a gun, the audience doesn’t need to be shown different clips showing different people from different eras holding different guns. This happened far too many times and seemed to be another way of stretching the film to an unnecessary length.
With all my bitching concerning the four hour running time, one might think that I didn’t care for NYMPHOMANIAC. On the contrary, I thought that this was an ambitious leap for Von Trier. He hits on a lot of core levels. The first half (or in the case of the idiotic marketing: VOLUME I) of the film showcases some light-hearted humorous scenes. There’s a sense of humor on display that I wouldn’t expect walking into a Lars Von Trier film. It’s in the second half (VOLUME II) where I can see a lot of viewers being turned off of the film. This is where Joe’s sexual conquests turn into decidedly darker, more tragic territory. It’s also here where Von Trier beat my emotions down to a fine dust. That’s a huge compliment for a drama like this, but I can’t help but think things might have worked better without the unnecessarily long running time and pretentious tweaks.
As far as the filmmaking here goes, everything is professionally made. The sex scenes themselves (of which there are many) aren’t erotic in the slightest. One of the common misconceptions I’ve heard from people about this film is that it essentially sounds like an epic-length porn, but that’s far from how the execution comes off. By definition, pornography is supposed to arouse and excite the viewer, NYMPHOMANIAC is about as erotic as staring at a tree for four hours (unless that’s a fetish for a certain viewer). The sequences do get graphic and (in some cases, mainly in the latter half) hard to watch. This is absolutely not a feel-good film about romance. This entire film is a depressing examination on an addict’s downward spiral in life. It’s best to set aside some recovering time afterwards, because this one will bum a lot of people out (which is what it primarily set out to do). The feeling after finishing NYMPHOMANIC left me wanting to take a shower and eat some ice cream.
In a lot of ways, NYMPHOMANIAC reminded me of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR in terms of the errors that both films carry. The problems mainly come in unnecessary additions to a plot that could have made for an awesome movie. The bloated running time for both films (3 hours for BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, 4 hours for NYMPHOMANIAC) ultimately knocks what could have been two really amazing films down to two decent films. I never plan on sitting through NYMPHOMANIAC again. This is partially out of the four hours it would take to do so and mostly because of how heavy the depressing story is. I don’t regret experiencing it in the slightest. It’s an appropriately downbeat way to conclude a trio of films revolving around Depression. If you’re a fan of arthouse cinema and Lars Von Trier’s work, then I can give this a solid recommendation. I wouldn’t suggest it to anybody else in the slightest.