Nymphomaniac: Vol. I


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



2 April


Serge Gainsbourg born, 1928

On this day in 1928 Lucien Ginsburg was born, to refugees from the Russian revolution who had fled in 1917. Later, he would change his name from Ginsburg to Gainsbourg to reflect his admiration for the British landscape painter Gainsborough, and from Lucien to Serge to honour his Russian heritage. Originally intending to be a painter, Gainsbourg wound up supporting himself by playing piano in bars and so entered the world of music more by accident than design. However, once he realised he had something of a knack for chansons in the Jacques Brel style, he became a prolific composer and singer, mixing what he called hack work (he wrote two Eurovision songs, one of them a winner in 1965) with experimenta. He became notorious for the 1966 song he wrote for the teenage France Gall, “Les Sucettes” (Lollipops), a song about oral sex, though the singer herself claimed not to realise it. In 1969 he released “Je t’aime… moi non plus” with Jane Birkin (originally recorded with former lover Brigitte Bardot), a song with sexual lyrics, lots of heavy breathing and plenty of quasi-orgasmic groans. It was banned in many countries. Among his other artistic achievements are Histoire de Melody Nelson, an orchestral concept album telling the story of a Lolita-like affair; his Rock Around the Bunker concept album about the Nazis (as a Jew, Gainsbourg had been forced to wear the yellow star as a child); his reggae version of La Marseillaise (which inflamed public opinion until he won the argument by pointing out that the French national anthem is meant to be revolutionary); his co-writing/production on Alain Bashung’s cult album “Play Blessures”. On one of his final albums, Love on the Beat, he sang another controversial song, Lemon Incest, with his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, then aged 12.




Nymphomaniac Vol I (2013, dir: Lars Von Trier)

Lars Von Trier’s films are often provocations. In Manderlay he gave us the sight of slaves better off under slavery than as free people. In Antichrist he gave us genital mutilation. In Melancholia we had a Michael Bay style armageddon picture done as psychoanalytical study. With Nymphomania he’s up to his old tricks, the film being the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a nymphomaniac who recounts her life story to the man who has found her beaten up in the street one evening. The form is clearly the Victorian picaresque adventure, with Stellan Skarsgård playing the sort of figure who, in another film, might say “your story intrigues me, please continue”, while Gainsbourg’s Joe recounts lurid incidents from a life of what seems like relentless fucking. Perhaps the style is even older – Pilgrim’s Progress, maybe – because, and here again Von Trier is definitely tickling our expectations, the journey is not about sex at all. It’s about love. This might come as a bit of disappointment for those hoping to consume hard-core sex under the brown wrapper of European arthouse. But that, again, is a target trope that Von Trier is seeking to invoke – at one point towards the end of Volume 1 of Nymphomania he presents us with a triply split screen, in each third of which some soft-focus guy is banging away at our sexual pilgrim, as clear an echo of early 70s sex-house as you could want (if you want to see it as a religious triptych, that is there too). The strength of Nymphomania is that it works without any of this referential stuff too, Gainsbourg’s delicate yet defiant performance anchoring it steadily, though Stacy Martin does much of the heavy sexual lifting in Volume 1 as the young Joe. Some of the “guest” performances are truly remarkable – Uma Thurman as a scorned wife confronting her husband and the nymphette Joe is so astonishing that it took me five minutes to realise it was even her; you will forgive Shia LaBeouf for his entire career when you see him as Joe’s peevish earnest lover; Christian Slater is genuinely heartbreaking as Joe’s loving father. It is a remarkable film, which, as great love-making sessions do, pauses playfully here and there for disquisitions – on the Fibonacci sequence, fly-fishing, the music of Bach – before plunging on to the next blowjob or biffing. And yes, you see LaBeouf’s cock.



Why Watch?


  • Von Trier’s best film to date
  • The remarkable and daring performances
  • Part 1 of the last, with Antichrist and Melancholia, of Von Trier’s “trilogy of depression”
  • The best Uma Thurman performance you’ll ever see


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Nymphomaniac Vol 1 – at Amazon





4 thoughts on “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I”

  1. To be honest, I had my doubts when I went to see this film. After all the buzz, I more or less expected a provocative, pretentious, incomprehensible film. I thought 'Nyphomaniac' would be a shallow artistic excuse to show lots of explicit sex in an attempt to shock the audience and create controversy.

    Well, I was wrong.

    Is it provocative? In some ways, yes. I think choosing nymphomania as a subject for a film is already some sort of provocation. And there are some scenes that might be considered tasteless or mildly shocking. But if I would have to describe the film in one word, I wouldn't use 'provocative'. Instead, I would use 'imaginative'.

    Because that is what this film is: imaginative. It's so full of ideas, full of creativity and full of cinematographic exuberance that it's hard not be impressed. The nice thing is that Lars Von Trier never takes himself too seriously. In a way, it's a pity that the film is about sex. So much attention is being given to the number of penises shown (many, in a very funny way) and the number of vagina close-ups (none, in fact, at least in part 1) that it overshadows everything else, including the creative way the film is made.

    'Nyphomaniac' is a classic frame story. A sex-obsessed woman named Joe tells her life to a man called Seligman who found her bleeding in a back alley. Seligman in turn tells her about things in his own life, like fly fishing, Fibonacci numbers or organ music. Their conversation is the backbone of the film – the side stories about Joe's sex adventures and Seligman's hobbies are divided into chapters. Von Trier uses lots of different film styles: he throws in animations, split screens, cross cutting, black & white, and at one point even a fast succession of snapshots. This makes for a very quirky film, that keeps on surprising.

    One wonderful example of this creative approach is the final chapter, where Joe sees a similarity between her complicated love life and Seligman's favourite piece of polyphonic organ music. She compares her lovers to the three different melodic tunes in the music. The way Von Triers visualizes this, with the screen split in three to show cross cuttings of the organ and the lovers, is original and funny at the same time.

    So, in spite of all the indications to the contrary, this film is about as far removed from porn as Woody Allen is from Mickey Mouse. 'Nymphomaniac' deserves to be remembered for more than just sex.

  2. First off, if you want to see a movie that depicts sexual compulsion in an engrossing and compelling way, see Shame starring Michael Fassbender.

    This film is not porn, not particularly raunchy, not in the least bit sexy, nor shocking in the least. What it is is a tiresome, disjointed, and utterly pedantic piece of faux-art.

    The dialogue is so bad with its philosophical pontification that I physically winced many times throughout the film. This is the sort of wincing one does not at challenging art but at amateur, college level film. It screams intellectual phoney in every other scene.

    Why is this film even 4 hours long? Because Von Trier was too lazy to pare it down for us. It's like when your friend posts 300 photos of his art project on his website and expects you to pick your 10 favorite, because he can't be arsed to do his own editing.

    Lars Von Trier's surname, although pronounced differently in his native tongue, is very telling if pronounced as an English word. Try and try again, his scam art fools the gullible masses who will imbue his work with meaning themselves. It is akin to religion — lacking in both profundity and truth.

    Do not let the cult of Von Trier brainwash you into believing.

  3. NYMPHOMANIC VOL I/VOL II by Michael Hayward

    Nymphomaniac Vol I/Vol II

    OK, I'll admit that I enjoy dark subject matter and many of the most disturbing films I've seen are foreign language but films from Denmark aren't usually among them. This film centres on Joe, a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac who is found laid in an alley barely conscious and nursed back to health by a kind man who listens to her tales of woe. Now, the film is graphic, it's a Lars Von Trier movie after all and with scenes that are intended to shock in …much the same vein as Baise Moi or Irreversible for example, but this is a more mainstream movie with some big Hollywood names among the castlist to boot. I guess that made the fact that I could find no real depth to any of the characters nor feel anything towards their plight even more of a shame. The lead character is a nymphomaniac, only she doesn't seem to enjoy sex, there's not a shred of feeling behind any of the graphic scenes and little point to them either as they don't help the plot and the scenes themselves feels very clinical. The plot is weak, there's little point to it all and I was left wondering why I'd bothered. Not for me, I'd score it 2/10. 1 for each half. Actually the one stand-out performance for me was Uma Thurman as a cheated wife. She does 'on the verge of implosion' with aplomb. Shame that was the highlight and over briefly.


  4. Don't. Your time is far too valuable.

    This film features unsimulated sex of pornographic actors digitally edited onto the parts of the real actors. So if you're looking for smut, you should instead watch a production from the "Silicone Valley" (or wherever it is the porn industry heads out of now). At least you won't have to labor through pretentious dialogue just to see some real action. It gets painful–the dialogue. There's a part in the movie where Skarsgard's character tries to rationalize the protagonist's nymphomania via the Fibonacci sequence. It really doesn't add anything meaningful to the plot, it's just von Trier trying to convince you that he went to college. No, I'm only half kidding. Read the spoiler.

    *SPOILER* Assuming you don't heed my warning, and still decide to waste your time watching this film, then I won't won't give away too much, but Skarsgard's dialogue is supposed to build you up so you can be shocked by the, like, totally ironic ending of Vol. II…As if you couldn't see that coming, or as if you'll even care at that point. Just be glad it's over so you can go back to watching real porn 😉 *END OF SPOILER*

    And if you're looking for a film that debases contemporaries and challenges social taboos, well…I guess you can say this film does that, or at least attempts to. It's all pretty shallow, though, and really comes off as an excuse to feature unsimulated sex in a movie full of renowned actors. I would not feel so strongly about this if the actors' performances weren't so laughable. I might have even forgiven von Trier if the characters were redeeming or at least believable. For start, LaBeouf's character speaks with an accent not of this world. And Slater's performance as the aged father is comparable to a parody straight out of SNL. Without giving away spoilers, I'll just say I couldn't find one character I could sympathize/empathize with, because they were either too dull, too deplorable, or too comical.

    Want to see a real art film? Un Chien Andalou, because this isn't art. And from a contemporary film's standpoint, there's really nothing to justify the extremes it has to reach in order to tell its story.

    Don't do it. Or do it, I don't care. I did my good deed for the day.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 × three =