“Lars von Trier’s latest film, Nymphomaniac, which unfolds in two-parts across four hours in its current edit, is nothing less than the director’s bid to make his magnum opus,” announces Boyd van Hoeij at Indiewire. “While 90 minutes shorter than the version von Trier himself has made (rather than the ‘abridged and censored’ version that hits Danish theaters Christmas Day ahead of its 2014 U.S. release), as it stands, Nymphomaniac is indeed a major work that tries and, to a large extent, succeeds to organically synthesize the world, ideas and filmmaking savvy of von Trier in one sprawling and ambitious cinematic fable. Somewhat shockingly given the subject matter, the most stimulating material in Nymphomaniac isn’t the explicit sex but how sexuality is discussed and understood.” Last week, Boyd reported on the film’s first screening in Denmark and the no-holds-barred marketing campaign.
“Racy subject aside, the film provides a good-humored yet serious-minded look at sexual self-liberation, thick with references to art, music, religion and literature, even as it pushes the envelope with footage of acts previously relegated to the sphere of pornography,” writes Variety‘s Peter Debruge. “After a hypnotic opening sequence — a back-alley symphony of sorts, featuring the drum of rain on tin roofs — an older gentleman named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds Jo (Charlotte Gainsbourg) bloody and abused on the cold, wet pavement. He invites her back to his sparsely furnished flat for tea and conversation, eager to hear this alluring stranger’s confession. ‘It will be long and moral, I’m afraid,’ Jo warns, and commences to retell her entire sexual history, beginning with the line, ‘I discovered my cunt at age 2.'”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy finds that Nymphomaniac is “never boring and does provoke and stimulate, although not as a turn-on, not remotely. At its core the film represents an intellectual male artist’s arduous, wayward, idiocentric, blunt, naughty-boy attempt to address Freud’s famous question, ‘What does a woman want?'” As for this less-than-ultra-long cut: “There is no sense of material missing or stories foreshortened, and the cutting style and use of music are unmistakably those of the filmmaker. Nor does one go away hungry; this smorgasbord of talk and sex constitutes a very full meal.”
Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa: “A fascinating work despite it’s slightly chaotic side with a multitude of occult sub-readings and a few pointless provocations slipped in by Lars von Trier on the topic of his alleged anti-Semitism, Nymphomaniac – Part 1 is an added proof of the virtuosity of a filmmaker torn between the flesh and the spirit, a great disturbed artist working on the chaotic border between notions of good and evil, a director navigating from German metal band Rammstein to the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. A whole program filled and consumed with excess.”
At the Playlist, Kevin Jagernauth notes that “the Danish Film Critics Association have gotten in on the fun of Nymphomaniac, and created their own inspired poster highlighting their excitement for the movie, to promo the upcoming 2014 Bodil Awards, which are handed out on February 1st.” Have a look at them trying on their “O-Faces.”
Updates: “As in Melancholia, von Trier relishes bookending the grimy world of human suffering with scenes of natural grace,” notes Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies. “Joe’s nymphomania is presented first as undefined desire, then as the expression of female power, then as a war against love. ‘For every 100 crimes committed in the name of love there is only one committed in the name of sex,’ is the rationale. Yet, surprisingly (for a film with a poster campaign full of faces during climax) there is a chapter—Jerôme—dedicated exclusively to love, an emotion that discomforts Joe. ‘Love appeals to the lowest instinct wrapped up in lies,’ she says. Plain-speaking denunciations of the world’s most romanticiszed emotion creates a Herzog-like tone of chaos.”
Dave Calhoun for Time Out London: “Chaotic and not especially pretty, the film has more of the punkish, radical spirit of von Trier’s The Idiots or Dogville than the gloss or contained drama of Melancholia or Antichrist—although the nominal British setting and interest in religion and a promiscuous woman nod to Breaking the Waves too…. ‘Which way will you get the most out of my story?’ asks Joe. ‘By believing in it? Or not believing in it?’ It’s this sort of narrative playfulness that keeps you close and keeps you guessing—even if it also stops von Trier from doing anything as conservative or reassuring as offering a clear opinion or coherent perspective via his teasing scrapbook of sexual adventure.”
Updates, 12/18: “Nymphomaniac is about masturbation, Fibonacci numbers, fly-fishing, bondage, polyphonic harmonies, the Prusik knot, and Edgar Allan Poe,” writes the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “It’s about a pleasuring technique called ‘the silent duck,’ which Jamie Bell will demonstrate to you, and a tea stain on a wall in the shape of an inverted Walther PPK. It’s about the practical difficulties for a lady in permitting two African gentlemen to copulate with her simultaneously. It’s about Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Jamie Bell, Christian Slater and Shia LaBeouf in situations you’ve certainly never seen them in before. Predominantly, it’s about sex addiction, while being about as sexy as algebra. It’s about four hours long. It’s a comedy.”
“Nymphomaniac bludgeons the body and tenderizes the soul,” writes the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “It is perplexing, preposterous and utterly fascinating; a false bill of goods in that it’s a film about sex that is deliberately unsexy and a long, garrulous story (two volumes, four hours) that largely talks to itself…. Personally I found this a bruising, gruelling experience and yet the film has stayed with me. It is so laden with highly charged set pieces, so dappled with haunting ideas and bold flights of fancy that it finally achieves a kind of slow-burn transcendence. Nymphomaniac annoys me, repels me, and I think I might love it. It’s an abusive relationship; I need to see it again.”
“Long gone are the days when von Trier’s films could be seen as a provocation,” writes Kaleem Aftab for Filmmaker. “He lives in a secular society where the church has lost influence, so attacking religious doctrine just doesn’t have the same impact it once did. And von Trier doesn’t attack the idea of God per se, just the idea of a hierarchical structure that was created when women didn’t have the right to a public life. All von Trier does, and increasingly effectively, is try to make a deeper, more analytical interpretation of how female sexual emancipation has changed society and the relationship between the genders. His main construct is that the idea of romantic love and a monogamous relationship are unrealistic and unobtainable goals that only create pain and heartbreak.”
“When we hear characters discussing the perils of political correctness, you can’t help but think he is making a case for himself,” writes Geoffrey Macnab for the Independent. “The idea floated in the final reel that Joe is a victim of her gender seems glib coming from him.”
Update, 12/25: Boyd‘s back at Indiewire with a “Cheat Sheet: Everything You Need To Know About Lars von Trier’s Epic Study of Sexual Obsession.”
Updates, 1/2: Von Trier “presents both Joe and Antichrist’s She as grotesque characters, whose self-hatred is not truly validated in the eyes of the average viewer,” suggests Marc van de Klashorst at the International Cinephile Society. “‘Don’t beat yourself up so much,’ you want to tell these characters, and von Trier is right beside us in this. His only condemnation of his heroines is that they are silly for being ashamed of their lust.”
More from Jean-Michel Frodon (in French).
Updates, 3/30: J. Hoberman for the New York Review of Books: “Although variously a parody of Freudian analysis or a gloss on the Arabian Nights, Nymphomaniac most closely resembles an eighteenth-century novel about a young woman’s sexually-driven rise and fall or fall and rise; indeed, the first scientific study of female hypersexuality, Nymphomania, or a Dissertation Concerning the Furor Uterinus, was published by a French doctor in the late eighteenth century. Joe, however, is neither De Sade’s oft-violated Justine (for whom the protagonist of Melancholia is named) nor her sister, the sexual terrorist Juliette (although she shares some of her traits). Neither is she Pamela, Clarissa, or Moll Flanders. In the end, she is the artist. Von Trier is proud of his provocations yet concerned that the audience may too easily indulge him or, pace David Denby, actually become aroused. Indeed, that, in a sense, is the movie’s punchline.”
“I believe this is a film that finds von Trier moving in several new directions, as well as returning to some older strands in his work that he’s abandoned for quite some time,” writes Michael Sicinski for Cinema Scope. “In its own way, Nymphomaniac is a study in polymorphously perverse storytelling, a film that can veer from abject tragedy to absurdity to horror and sexual excitation and back through these modes, without cheapening that which is serious or placing that which is comical under the sign of guilt.”
At the Dissolve, David Ehrlich argues that “this is the film that binds his work together. These are his confessions.”
Nymphomaniac has come at us in a variety of forms, cut and uncut versions of two parts as well as the whole. But in most reviews, critics are addressing the overall project, so here goes: Sam Adams (Philadelphia City Paper, B), Nigel Andrews (Financial Times), Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), Ela Bittencourt (Slant, 3/4), Josef Braun, Richard Brody (New Yorker), Richard Corliss (Time), Yaron Dahan (Notebook), Manohla Dargis (New York Times), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, B+), David Edelstein (New York), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), David Fear (Esquire), Scott Foundas (Variety), Len Gutkin (Los Angeles Review of Books), Beth Hanna (Thompson on Hollywood), Richard Jameson and Kathleen Murphy (Cinephiled), Jessica Kiang (Playlist, A), Guy Lodge (HitFix), Noel Murray (Dissolve, 4/5), Adam Nayman (Reverse Shot), Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Lowry Pressly (Los Angeles Review of Books), Sarah Nicole Prickett (Artforum), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Nick Schager (Esquire), David Schmader (Stranger), Jeremi Szaniawski (Tativille), Kelly Vance (East Bay Express) and Ard Vijn (Twitch).
Listening (18’33”). Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård are guests on the Leonard Lopate Show.