Now Playing: Nymphomaniac Volumes One and Two

Nymphomaniac: Vol. One and Two
dir: Lars Von Trier, Denmark/Germany, 2013
Rating: 9.0


The bottom line: as my man Nick Fraccaro says, it’s “Kill Bill directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.” Whatever impression the sound of such an incongruous mash-up makes on you will probably be a good indicator of how you feel about this batshit-crazy movie.

Now playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Chicago as exclusive engagements — as well as via video on demand — are both parts of Lars Von Trier’s controversial four-hour epic Nymphomaniac. While the film generated positive critical notices in Von Trier’s native Denmark last year (where both volumes opened on Christmas Day), as well as at the Berlin International Film Festival in February (the site of the official world premiere of the full five-and-a-half-hour version), the response by both American critics and audiences alike has been strangely muted; the trade papers here have even referred to it as a “flop.” (Don’t blame me. I took a large class of college students on two separate field trips to see both parts.) Whether this has anything to do with prudish Americans being uneasy about the marriage of explicit sex and commercial narrative movies, as some commentators have speculated — at least as a theatrical experience; I have a hunch that the VOD returns on this are probably quite robust — the way the film has been curiously ignored in the U.S. is unfortunate: Nymphomaniac is, for my money, Von Trier’s best work since at least Dancer in the Dark in 2000. Among its many virtues, intellectual as well as visceral, Nymphomaniac is frequently hilarious. Well, at least the first volume is.


The premise: in an unnamed European country (let’s call it International Co-productionland), a middle-aged sad-sack named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) finds a bruised and battered middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying unconscious in an alley and brings her to his home to recuperate. After Seligman has provided her with a bed and served her a cup of tea, Joe recounts to him her sad and sordid life story, which Von Trier presents as a series of flashback vignettes revolving around her sex addiction (Volume One is broken into five “chapters” and Volume Two is broken into three). While Joe feels that each of these episodes illustrates that she is a “bad person,” Seligman, a seemingly asexual bibliophile, frequently rejects her claims by using his vast storehouse of knowledge to pose counterarguments. These framing sequences allow Von Trier to, among other things, draw correlations between sex and fly fishing and explore concepts relating to everything from math to botany to the polyphonic music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the delirium tremens experienced by Edgar Allan Poe in his final days. Amusingly, Nymphomaniac is not so much about sex then as it is about finding patterns in the universe, the nature of storytelling, and the need the human mind has to impose order and meaning. Seligman’s disbelief at a coincidence that occurs in Joe’s story towards the end of the first volume is very clever — and self-reflexive — in this respect: she actually asks him if her story would be better or worse without such a narrative contrivance.


Of course, this being a Lars Von Trier film, the second volume ends up meting out much punishment upon the already long-suffering heroine. (Neither those who claim Von Trier’s obsessive focus on female martyrdom marks him as a misogynist nor those who claim the same quality makes him a feminist are likely to change their mind about what he’s up to here.) But Volume Two also initially feels like an anti-climax (pun intended), largely because the surprising humor of the first part is gone: there is nothing in Volume Two, for instance, to compare with Uma Thurman’s hilariously melodramatic monologue as a housewife dealing with an unfaithful husband. (Was Thurman channeling some leftover/repressed rage from when former husband Ethan Hawke strayed? It’s certainly the best work she’s ever done.) Also, it must be said that it feels as though something in the film dies when the effervescent Stacy Martin, a British actress who plays young Joe in Volume One‘s flashback sequences, abruptly departs near the beginning of Volume Two, only to be replaced by the more dour persona of La Gainsbourg. And yet, in the days following my viewing of Volume Two, my appreciation for the achievement as a whole and its provocations has only increased. Have you ever heard a dirty joke with a very long set-up that leads to a very short, sick punchline? Nymphomaniac is a lot like that — only it gets funnier the more you think about it. The critic Keith Uhlich has rightly compared the denouement to that of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.


In spite of all of Nymphomaniac’s excesses, and its deliberately sprawling and messy nature (Von Trier here is going Tolstoy-wide instead of his usual Dostoevsky-deep), neither volume ever feels overly long. This is perhaps because the film’s form, not just its nonlinear structure but its cornucopia of different visual styles, seems to take its cues from the unbridled and overindulgent personality of its protagonist. But what finally makes Nymphomaniac feel substantial, and not just an empty provocation like, say, Manderlay, is its obviously highly personal nature. While watching Volume One, I felt as if Von Trier had split his personality between Seligman and Joe and was having a long and brutally honest dialogue with himself about his sometimes-dubious status as Europe’s reigning provocateur-auteur. After watching Volume Two, however, I revised this opinion: the most fruitful way to approach Nymphomaniac, I think, is to view Joe as the stand-in for Von Trier and Seligman as a stand-in for Von Trier’s critics. (The tip-off, for me, came in the dialogue exchange about Joe’s use of the word “negro,” which Seligman cautions her is “politically incorrect.”) When viewed in this light, Volume Two‘s inevitably “shocking” conclusion resonates as more than a cynical twist: Seligman reveals himself to be a faux-intellectual wolf-in-sheep’s clothing — like the critic who feigns an air of fairness and objectivity but only to better position himself to fuck you in the end. I’m still chuckling just thinking about it.

You can check out the red-band trailer for Nymphomaniac via YouTube below. But first, just because I think it’s hilarious, I invite you to admire this poster of Udo Kier’s awesome “O face”:


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

9 responses to “Now Playing: Nymphomaniac Volumes One and Two

  • John Charet

    I agree with a lot of what you say in your entry, but Nymphomaniacs Volumes 1 and 2 (* * * 1/2 out of * * * *) are on par with his last film Melancholia (2011) (* * * 1/2 out of * * * *). This is just my opinion though. What I found interesting here is that Nymphomaniac (at least volume 1) has Von Trier injecting a fair share of wit in the proceedings as you said. Usually, his films can be either little more than an endurance test (Antichrist- * * 1/2 out of * * * *) or strangely leave a lot to be desired (Dogville- * * * out of * * * * and Manderlay- * * * out of * * * *). While these two volumes are slightly off from his best films (Breaking the Waves- * * * * out of * * * * and Medea- * * * * out of * * * *), these do rank up there with Dancer in the Dark, The Boss of It All and the aforementioned Melancholia as * * * 1/2 star very good ones. To put it in other words, his strongest works (a second best category If you will). As far as humor goes, Nymphomaniac Volume 1 is similar to The Boss of It All cause it is witty, but the comparisons end there. Both Volumes 1 and 2 are worthy of his emotional roller coaster works where the protagonist endures so much hell (most notable in Volume 2). Despite the absence of humor in Volume 2, I still thought it worked as a stand alone film. Plus, you just gave me another way of thinking about the conclusion considering your viewing of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as Trier and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) as his critics. A decade ago, Von Trier opened the 2000’s with Dancer in the Dark which as I mentioned before was very good, but with the exceptions of Five Obstructions (a documentary) and The Boss of It All, all of them left a lot to be desired. While Dogville and Manderlay were far from bad films, the fact that he never even set foot in America lessened the credibility of the political drama. I am not saying that it was inaccurate, but it would have been more believable had Von Trier either been a visitor to America or lived there for a while. I know it does sound unfair to judge it by that, but do not forget Von Trier has made it clear that he has a phobia of flying and based on my knowledge, he has never traveled oversees. Cannes of course is in France and Denmark is a part of Europe. They were good films though (at least in my opinion), but the experience would have felt more pure had he visited America or lived there. Antichrist just felt like an endurance test. Unlike the films of John Waters and Alejandro Jodorowsy, Antichrist lacks the broadly comic style of the former to make it bearable or the sheer inventiveness of the latter to make it a truly outrageous work of art. In my opinion, Trier’s Antichrist is closer to Pasolini’s Salo (* * 1/2 out of * * * *) which in that regard means he does not feel an emotional connection to the material and just decides to push someone’s buttons for the sake of it. Their is no denying that they are some truly daring moments, but that alone will not make it work. In this recent decade, he seems to matured slightly with Melancholia (2011) (* * * 1/2 out of * * * *), which for all his usual trademarks (i.e. putting his protagonists through physical and psychological hell) showed a new side of him that I can’t quite put my finger on, but their was something mysterious about it. This same quality also continued in Nymphomaniac Volumes 1 and 2 which I just reviewed. Whatever quality this is I hope he continues to inject it in his future projects. Keep up the great work as always:)

  • John Charet

    Regarding Casablanca (1942) (* * * * out of * * * *) my answer to that is no not at all. Do not forget though that Dogville and Manderlay were viewed as anti-american even by the late Roger Ebert and former Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (though he was more baffled about the issue). Personally, I feel that they just accuse it of anti-americanism because of that fact alone about Von Trier (he has never been in the U.S.A.). Unlike Dogville and Manderlay, Casablanca is not a message movie, it is a romantic drama with quotable dialogue. Dogville and Manderlay deal with historical injustices in America (heavier themes) and it requires one to do the hard job of visiting America (I do not know If Von Trier has ever read books on American History). I probably should have stated this better in my comment above, I just figured that since a critic like Rosenbaum stated that, I would get a free pass cause I know you are a huge fan of film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum though I do not know If you read his Dogville review. As for Casablanca, that is a great film (* * * * out of * * * *) and as I said before nothing is lessened because the crew of that film were never there (the title of the film). The themes of that film were not historical minded (at least concerning injustices) like they are in Dogville and Manderlay. I hope this clears things up for you:)

    • michaelgloversmith

      I was partly teasing with the CASABLANCA remark, which I believe Von Trier himself made at the Cannes press conference for DOGVILLE. I think his point-of-view is that America has been so aggressive about exporting its culture all over the world that “America” is more of an idea than a place — one that he has as much of a right to make a movie about as anyone.

  • John Charet

    You are correct on that point and I am not sure what your opinion of Dogville is, but I think I should probably re-watch it again. I stand corrected in his point. I will admit though that out of Dogville and Manderlay, Dogville is by far the superior film. So I will watch it again tomorrow, (I do not own Manderaly, but I was mixed between giving that film a * * * or a * * 1/2). Make no mistake, he has just as much a right to make a film like Dogville and Manderlay as an American does and now I see your point. I proudly stand corrected. One thing though, Considering Nymphomaniac Volume II, I am confused as to whether or now I should give it * * * 1/2 or * * * because I was so intrigued by Volume 1 considering the sense of humor on display that watching Volume 2, I found wishing their was more of it. Great post as usual:)

  • vinnieh

    Interesting review, I need to see these films as they’re getting a hell of a lot of attention at the minute.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks, Vinnie. What’s funny is I had fallen off the Von Trier bandwagon after MANDERLAY, which I hated, and nothing I’ve seen since has convinced me to get back on — until now. I probably would have not even seen NYMPHOMANIAC (I had a negative preconception of it based on the title and plot description) but I had coincidentally shown DANCER IN THE DARK to a class earlier in the semester and felt practically obligated to take them on a field trip to see the new film by the same director. I’m glad I did.

  • The Best Films of 2014: A Midyear Report | White City Cinema

    […] “Among its many virtues, intellectual as well as visceral, Nymphomaniac is frequently hilarious”: […]

  • Top Ten Films of 2014 | White City Cinema

    […] 13. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 (Von Trier, Denmark/Germany/UK) – Landmark. Rating: 9.0. Full review here. […]

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