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Review: Nymphomaniac Volumes I & II

Lars Von Triers' four hour sex-fest refuses to pander to conventions of sex in film. Kate Barlow reviews

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Director: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin
Running time: 241 minutes

Lars Von Trier's sex-fuelled four hour long two-part drama is a film not short of expectation. Filling comment sections across the board of publications over the past months, Nymphomaniac has raised endless discussions about sex, misogyny and the relationship between porn and art. Upon its release the film itself doesn't seem to concern itself too much with such discussion. Rather, Von Trier has instead given us a film about his interpretation of sex when not related to romance, which, in an era where sex on screen is usually delivered with soft hue lighting, cheesy lines and little sight of any actual action, is rather unique.

While Nymphomaniac is undoubtably original, it is important to add that there is more to it than mere innovation: it also delivers on substance. The film follows the sex life of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-confessed 'nymphomaniac', in flash-back form as she tells her story to a lonely academic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) after being found bruised, bloody and semi-conscious in an alley. Given the set up, it is perhaps surprising that one of the memorable aspects of Nymphomaniac is its humour. A scene in which the young Joe (played in flashbacks by Stacy Martin) and her friend compete as to who can sleep with the most men on a train journey, all for the worthy sum of a bag of chocolates, is darkly comical with a cringe-worthy punch. It is this that characterises the first volume of the film: dryly funny but also disturbing and grotesque.

One of the film's less surprising features is the way it lives up to its promise of portraying brutal sexually explicit content. Within twenty minutes we see Joe losing her virginity to the antagonistic Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). From here things only get worse; by Volume II the subject matter has descended into S&M with Jamie Bell's calmly terrifying 'K' (in what seems like a world away from the days of Billy Elliot), child neglect and Joe giving oral sex to someone she has just revealed to be a paedophile. The second volume carries less of the sentimentality of the first, replacing any gentleness with violence.

While Von Trier's direction has claimed most of the film's limelight, the performances are also highly commendable throughout. Both Gainsbourg and Martin deliver Joe to perfection, fascinatingly contrasting the former's naive destruction of others and the latter's disturbing desire for self-ruin. Skarsgard is reserved and pensive as the bordering on autistic asexual Seligman, bringing a much needed softness to the screen. The supporting roles are equally extraordinary, Bell's domineering sadist, Christian Slater's nature-loving father and Uma Thurman's crazed and shrieking wife all providing a sense of agitation not provided by the cool leads. Even Shia LaBeouf, apart from the baffling accent, delivers a solid performance.

Nymphomaniac is certainly not an easy watch, delivering sex so unsexy that it is enough to put one off for life (or at least a few hours). Even when the film seems to be heading towards a sentimental warm ending that the audience has been so deprived of, Von Trier steers drastically away, instead giving us a further crass reminder of the destructive power of desire.

Nymphomaniac is thus a brutally honest portrayal of a woman's sexuality; cries of misogyny can only be delivered if one tries to generalise Joe's story to all women, something Von Trier never tries to do. One of the most powerful elements of the film is Joe's refusal to apologise for her sexual desire, recalling her tale with a calm unremorseful detachment. Joe's voice is a mirror of Von Trier's direction, in this uncompromising case study that refuses to pander to conventions of sex in film.

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