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article imageReview: Sex is secondary in 'Nymphomaniac' Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Mar 21, 2014 in Entertainment
In Lars von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac,’ a woman recounts her erotic experiences to the man who saved her after finding her near-death in an alley.
To say writer/director Lars von Trier wants to provoke audiences with his work would be an understatement. The verbal scandal he created in Cannes while promoting Melancholia demonstrated no subject is taboo for the filmmaker. His early films with Dogma 95 and subsequent pictures show no trepidation in displaying nudity and explicit sex scenes to make his point — whether or not you agree with his view is an entirely other matter. But this movie is undoubtedly making a point. Von Trier's latest project, Nymphomaniac, is heavily laced with a variety of commentary that tests the viewers' patience, challenges their perspective and abuses their intelligence.
Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in an alley, beaten and unconscious. Upon waking she refuses to allow him to call the police, so he invites her to his apartment to recover from the assault. Then in a small room fit for a priest, she spends the night confessing the most intimate details of her life as a sex addict to a man best described as asexual.
Originally five hours in length, the current release is approximately four hours and separated into two volumes that will be released separately. Disconcerting is the disclaimer at the start of each piece indicating this is an edited and censored version altered with von Trier's consent but not involvement. The additional cuts are mostly obvious interruptions to the film and in some cases clearly change/disrupt the narrative flow. The clearest example is Seligman providing Joe a segue to discuss her nymphomania even though the word or anything similar had not been brought up until that moment.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård in  Nymphomaniac
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård in 'Nymphomaniac'
Mongrel Media
Volume one consists of Joe's early discovery of her genitals and sexuality, the disappointing loss of her virginity and the growth of her carnal desires. In spite of gaps in her activities, Joe describes bedding dozens of men on a rotating basis until meeting the only man she'd ever love (Shia LaBeouf), which leads to a total loss of feeling. In volume two, she goes to drastic measures in an attempt to regain the pleasure she formerly enjoyed, including being a submissive in an S&M scenario.
Even though the film is hypersexual, there is nothing tantalizing about the visuals. This is thanks in large part to Seligman's pedantic observations with which he interrupts Joe regularly. In her teens Joe competed with her best friend to see who could have sex with more men on a train before reaching the end of the line; Seligman tiresomely compares her venture to fly fishing, drawing parallels to the ways she lured her conquests. In each chapter von Trier uses Seligman as a mic to ensure the audience understands what he means to illustrate with that part of the narrative. It's mostly irritating, sometimes humorous and to some extent insulting. The average viewer of his work understands that a similar tale told by a male character would be viewed differently without needing to be told.
Furthermore, von Trier makes no attempt to cloak his misogyny in his depiction of Joe. She is so overcome with her sexual desire that she leaves her infant unattended. Her insistence that she is a sinner in spite of being a non-believer initially appears to challenge but then confirms the female libido as evil. And then to top it off in the end, he concludes with a resounding statement: "she asked for it."
Nonetheless, this is a powerful film with equal performances. Gainsbourg's commitment to the role is exceptional, as is Stacy Martin’s, who portrays the younger Joe. LaBeouf's ambiguous accent aside, this is one of his best turn outs in recent memory. Skarsgård sells the part of academic listener, more excited about his parallels then the subject at hand. And Uma Thurman is outstanding as a woman scorned by Joe's indiscretion and who makes a dramatic showing of the consequences of her actions.
In addition, the soundtrack plays an important role in the movie. Rammstein's heavy industrial sound is used to jolt the viewer's mind and senses. "Burning Down the House" is used at an opportune time. And a cover of "Hey Joe" couldn't be more fitting.
As with most of von Trier's films, this should be watched but with an analytical eye.
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård and Stacy Martin
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