Nymphomaniac: Volume 1/Volume 2 review

Everything you never wanted to know about sex

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Last Tango In Paris was slammed on release as ‘pornography disguised as art’. Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (released in two parts on the same day), fanfared as a celebrity skin-flick, turned out to be art disguised as porn.

Granted, there’s onscreen carnality aplenty as sex addict Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spills her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), an asexual intellectual who rescues her from a street attack. Yet it’s their conversational grappling rather than her highly explicit couplings (seamlessly employing nifty CGI and eight ‘sex doubles’ apparently) that rivet your interest.

Seligman’s philosophical digressions transform Joe’s stories using everything from fly-fishing to religious history. The results run the gamut from imaginative (a trio of sex partners form a Bach medley) to balls-out bonkers (musing on knots during bondage). Spattered with shock opinions on paedophilia and promiscuity, and a cavalcade of cock shots, they confirm that von Trier’s infamous media trials haven’t tamed his scandal-loving impulses.

Long-time Lars-lovers will recognise the raw, frisky experimentation of The Idiots and the sexual adventuring of Breaking The Waves in this undeniable demanding pair of movies. Also in the mix are Antichhrist and Melancholia ’s love of big themes and extremes. But Nymphomaniac is also, weirdly, von Trier’s most watchable offering for years: richly textured, visually diverse, endlessly provocative, and often as funny as it is shocking.

That said, where Vol 1 is full of playfulness and curiosity about Joe’s insatiable appetites, Vol 2 takes a darker and more violent approach diving into eye-watering S&M interludes. Dished out by Jamie Bell’s sadist ‘K’, these are disturbingly graphic, yet Gainsbourg skilfully portrays the desperation behind longing for the lash.

But not all the cast can cope as deftly as Gainsbourg, Skargård or newcomer Stacy Martin (as the younger Joe) with the films’ slippery changes of mood. Sporting a Dick Van Dyke-worthy English accent, Shia LaBeouf is game as a vain seducer but way out of his comfort zone, outclassed by Uma Thurman as a wronged wife.

But there’s still not a dull moment in this fearless four-hour epic, hewn out of von Trier’s five-and-a-half-hour Director’s Cut. Thought-provoking rather than arousing, both films explore the director’s ideas about love, sexuality and loneliness. The organ he seeks to stimulate most is your brain.

With explicit sex and penetrating philosophy, this erotic odyssey requires close attention and an open mind.

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Freelance Writer

Kate is a freelance film journalist and critic. Her bylines have appeared online and in print for GamesRadar, Total Film, the BFI, Sight & Sounds, and WithGuitars.com.