There are certain films on the Wikipedia page of ‘BDSM in Film‘ that I have no interest in seeing. Until last week Lars von Trier’s epic Nymphomaniac was on that list—it was too long and the trailer didn’t make it look like anything I would enjoy. (And though I’d liked Melancholia, Antichrist made me want to die.)
Then my friend Joan asked me if I’d seen it.
‘No, it’s not really on my list of Things to Subject Myself to.’
‘I really enjoyed it,’ she said. ‘I’d watch it again.’
It couldn’t have been too hellish, I figured. Netflix had the extended director’s cut, which was 5 ½ hours long. And if I’m going to do something I’m going to do it, dammit.
Joan said, ‘I’ll watch it with you. It’ll be interesting to see what they cut.’
That, ladies and gentlemen, is friendship. Not helping move house. Not helping move a body. Watching a Lars von Trier film you’ve already seen for 5 ½ hours in one go.
So I got up early (for me), as she was in a different time zone and also participated in day-walker hours. And we watched it together.
I dedicate this post to friendship and the amazing people you meet online. This is a longer post so I’m going to put the rest behind a break. I keep my reviews free of spoilers usually—there are a few in this one, but they’re behind spoiler tags.
Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in an alley after an attack. She refuses an ambulance or police but allows herself to be taken to his tiny, hermit-like abode where he gives her tea and clean pyjamas whilst washing her clothes.
She explains why she deserves to have been beaten up. She’s a terrible person, you see, and has been since birth. He stops her—finding that impossible to believe and she sets out to prove her utter corruptness to him by talking about various parts of her life in ‘chapters’, each of which is inspired by something she spies in the very sparsely furnished room. For example, a fishing fly on the wall inspires the first chapter of the film.
She starts her story at age two and describes her ‘cunt’ as ‘Pandora’s box’ and herself as a nymphomaniac. They have a philosophical conversation about sin and sex then she continues telling him stories about her childhood.
Some stories are about her father (Christian Slater) and are not sexual and others are about her experiences in her body.
After a terrible first sexual experience (with Shia LaBeouf) she went on a train journey with a friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and basically raped a man.
Seligman is a fisherman and compares her actions to that of a fisherman (tying in the fishing fly on the wall)—he talks about how she and B chose who to try to lure into sexual encounters.
Another chapter is prompted by Seligman eating a pastry with a cake fork, which reminds her of someone else she knew who did that.
She tells him about a little club she was in with other women—including B—who did sex to men and shared their stories with one another.
After attempting university she gets a job and winds up working for Shia LeBeouf somehow. His character’s name is Jerome.
After he fucks off she goes through a period of what she calls having a cunt like those automatic doors at a supermarket. She can’t keep up with all the nonsense she’s telling the various men she’s fucking and comes up with a truly inventive little game to play that makes her life easier and the poor guys’ lives far more confusing.
One of the men she gets involved with is married and his wife (played by Uma Thurman) is AMAZING. Joan said she didn’t recall this section, which is fairly long, but hilarious.
Then we’re on to the distinctly unhilarious chapter that starts with a quote from The Fall of the House of Usher (plus ten points to von Trier for that).
Saskia Reeves plays the nurse! She was on Luther.
Not all sections of the film are about sex. Some are about ripping your guts out. Like this section.
They talk about subjects in tandem. This section is about music polyphony. Which is music for three voices, so she talks about three specific men she was involved with.
There’s some explicit guy on girl oral sex here. And some girl on guy oral, too. Which isn’t all that interesting, because we see that in films enough that it’s just something that happens. But this guy’s face is right in there. And then it’s super explicit.
Then Jerome’s back.
At least old dude points out the ridiculousness of this.
She says, ‘So what, that’s the way the story goes. And I’m the one telling it.’
Then her favourite thing fails her.
We pick up where we left off with some sexual masochism and also learn something very useful about the male protagonist of the piece. I liked him a great deal, as I could identify with him. He’s asexual and a virgin. He calls himself innocent, which I’m not sure I agree with, but the way he’s read a great deal of sexual works and found them interesting and can hear her story from an intellectual point of view is definitely something I can follow.
The first chapter of this one is about religion and was rather interesting. The sort of people who’d find it blasphemous would probably not be watching a Lars von Trier film in the first place.
She wants to get back to her old self and she and Jerome try different things. One of which changes the way I see the phrase, ‘I don’t have enough spoons.’ Also Udo Kier cameo!
Oy. Then we get to something else.
Our protagonist decides the cure for her problem are men who don’t speak her language. Specifically large black men.
Just one or two cliches in that bit.
But there’s also some hotness that happens. Including some DP. Which isn’t usually my thing, but after the set up it was… hot.
As a last ditch effort, So she goes off to meet a sadist (Jamie Bell) who doesn’t allow safewords. He’s a straightforward sort I quite liked.
That section was super hot, in my opinion.
She then tells a story about something a prostitute told her about masochists that sounds rather accurate and hilarious.
Once the sadist has served his purpose she moves on.
The next chapter is triggered by a mirror in the room and takes place a few years after the previous part of her story.
She begins wanking at work, which is when her clit starts bleeding wtf is that a real thing?! Looking it up the advice was to be sure you trimmed your nails first in case you were accidentally snagging yourself. Oh god in heaven why?
But she’s put on notice at her job—if she doesn’t get her voracious vag under control by seeing a psychiatrist she’s fired. She doesn’t like psychiatrists and then has to go back in time to explain why.
Hoo boy, is that a story.
She gets pregnant, wants and abortion, the officials give her grief so she does it herself, which she learned how to do in medical school. NOT for the feint of heart. I like horror films and gore and such and nearly passed out. Seriously. I was light-headed and had to drink something sugary to regain my composure.
‘Graphic’ doesn’t begin to cover it.
Then there’s another philosophical discussion about her actions and the general subject of abortion.
Then we’re back to her story about her job. She does as ordered. It doesn’t go to plan.
She’s not fit for working with the normals, but it turns out all her sexual experiences have equipped her for other sorts of work (not what you think). She works out people’s darkest sexual secrets and blackmails them in order to get them to pay back what they owe. Sort of a Kinky Collections agency
But her mentor in this realm (Wilem DaFoe) asks her to do something she’s unsure of.
And that leads to a situation with a very young looking woman (Mia Goth).
By this point she’s suffering from abstinence. The effects of which are so severe she’s shaking and has headaches and all sorts of other 19th century nonsense. Her self-abuse is now at the point where (because her clit is still bleeding) she’s genuinely calling it a ‘wound’ because that’s what it is! EWWW and WHAT.
Which brings us back round to how our protagonists met.
And the very end was an object lesson in consent. I’m not yet sure how I feel about it and would be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts.
My thoughts on the end:
On the one hand fuck that guy and his ‘You’ve fucked thousands of guys so why not me, too?’ bullshit. Particularly right after she’d said she wanted to be celibate forever, as it was the only way she could be sane and happy.
On the other: She didn’t need to shoot him. Was she trying to prove she was a bad person since he hadn’t believed her all that time? When she’d tried to convince him she was bad because she’d wanted to kill someone he said, ‘But you didn’t.’ Well, now she has. Though it was because he was trying it on sexually so I still don’t think that makes her a bad person.
Last week I talked about how I just didn’t care about the characters of Bitter Moon—that I didn’t mind unlikeable characters, but that they needed to be interesting. Nymphomaniac is an excellent example of this. The protagonist and many of the main characters aren’t particularly likeable, but I enjoyed the film. And it didn’t feel like 5 ½ hours at all, which is saying something. I would even watch it again.
Some people felt the second part wasn’t as good as the first part, but I felt what happened in the second film was the result of the first film so I actually liked the second one better. Your mileage may vary and all that and I can see how, if they were watched as two separate films, the momentum would be lost between them. Watched as one I thought they flowed together well.
I also liked that the sex was ‘real’. Not that they used real anatomy (more on that in a bit), but that it’s not glamorized. It’s just there. Over with too quickly or just not happening for one or more parties involved. The entire film is half philosophical fantasy and half utter realism.
[Random peeve:] In von Trier’s films actors speak in their normal accents. Americans have English children and it’s not explained how. For some reason, Mr LaBeouf is doing…an accent. I think it’s supposed to be some sort of English something. Joan called it Shia’s weird and wild muddler. It was distracting and confusing. I could accept American Christian Slater having an English daughter—maybe he worked in England and she was raised there—but in LaBeouf’s case why not just… Who cares.
The point is—get a dialect coach or just be a Yank. I never knew what was going to come out of his mouth. (This is one of my peeves, sorry for the digression.)[/peeve]
I originally thought they used some very realistic dildos, but I had forgotten about Antichrist and the porn actor bits. This time they got super high-tech and digitally composited the upper half of the actors to the lower half of the porn stars.
Of course, me being me, I know there are people out there watching the film saying, ‘I recognise that cock! That one belongs to [whichever dude it belongs to]. I love that guy!’
The vaginae on display (that’s the correct word, I looked it up) are prosthetic, before you get too excited. That does make certain scenes…extra…weird. And hilarious. I can just hear some of the directions von Trier was giving some of the actors now.
There’s humour. There’s pathos. There are porn actor cocks and faux vaginae and a sympathetic sadist.
I don’t know if you need to watch the extended edition—that’s up to you—but I would definitely recommend this one.
Blogger’s Extended Cut Bonus Content:
From Vulture: What Got Cut from Nymphomaniac Volume One. It was mostly lines of dialogue here or there or specific shots.
I couldn’t find an article on what was cut from the second film.
There were ten teaser posters of various characters in the throes of ecstasy. The Guardian had nicknames for the various faces pulled and a poll for which seemed the most realistic. It’s hilarious.