Posted April 12, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Avant-Garde

Nymphomaniac: Anti-Cinema

Nymphomaniac, the new film from Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, is very long (four hours), requires that you pay the price of two admissions to see it in its entirety, and is only moderately satisfying.

Two admissions are necessary because the first and second halves were released separately, as Volumes I and II. Initially I was very bothered by this. But in the end I wasn’t that upset because the film does have some value, especially its more interesting and emotionally complex second half. And seeing it on two separate days, with substantial rest in between, is probably the best way to do it.

Even though Nymphomaniac is not great, I do appreciate that it’s something the bourgeoisie could not possibly like. I appreciate its radicalism. It’s not as unwatchable as, say, Andy Warhol‘s Empire (1964), that famously unendurable real-time shot of the Empire State Building that went on for eight hours. But sometimes Nymphomaniac is close to that level of unwatchability.

In his career, Trier has been so uncompromising, breaking every cinematic (and political) rule in the book, that in some ways one could call his work anti-cinema: film that breaks with almost every conventional definition of what cinema is supposed to be. In this way, Trier’s work is reminiscent of not just Warhol but also Jean-Luc Godard.

The main character of Nymphomaniac rejects bourgeois society so completely that she becomes unemployable and cannot take part in a family. In much the same way, Trier rejects bourgeois cinema so utterly that his films are becoming unwatchable to mainstream eyes — eyes that demand certain things in a film or they will turn away from that film fairly quickly.

Even if Nymphomaniac is not great, its extremity is impressive. It’s a tour de force of extreme filmmaking. Very few talented filmmakers in the world today dare to make films outside the conventions of bourgeois cinema (“bourgeois cinema” meaning cinema in the context of capitalist civilization).

If you believe in revolutionary filmmaking, Trier is still worth supporting. But be forewarned: Nymphomaniac is frequently boring, rudderless — and flaccid. Pardon the pun.


Volume I

Nymphomaniac, Volume I is even more boring and slack than Trier’s last film, Melancholia (2011). Anyone who stays awake through it deserves some kind of medal for stamina. It is also completely un-sexy, by the way; do not expect titillation.

Charlotte Gainsbourg (who has starred in three Trier films in a row now) plays a woman who thinks of herself as a nymphomaniac. I’d call her a sociopath, a person all but encapsulated inside herself. She is also borderline-catatonic, walking around most of the time in something close to a stupor. But she is fairly intelligent.

Her name is Joe. Yes, it’s spelled that way: J-O-E. By giving her a male name, Trier is perhaps suggesting that she does not fit into the cultural role of “woman.” In Patti Smith’s immortal words, she is “beyond gender.”

At the start of the film, Joe is about age 40. She meets a lonely older man (played by Stellan Skarsgard) and begins to tell him her life story. He is also beyond man/woman, being something of a neuter, and he appears to have no family. They sit in his drab apartment, a depressing colorless soundstage that seems designed to evoke memories of Communist East Germany.

She talks flatly about her self-obsessed life, repeatedly stating that she’s a terrible person. The kind older man defends her, saying that she’s not so bad. Transfixing cinema it is not.

The man also chimes in occasionally with predictable parallels between how she lures men and how he tarts up his fish hooks to attract fish. Every now and again there’s a short biology lesson, explaining sex drives and such. Volume I of Nymphomaniac sometimes resembles a Sex Ed filmstrip put out by a suburban Board of Education in the 1950s. These are the moments when the film is at its didactic worst. Trier as a schoolteacher bringing us Sex Education. Who in the audience could possibly need Sex Ed?!

Gainsbourg recounts her life with one banal story after another. As she recounts something, the film then breaks away to dramatize that particular vignette, with a different actress playing Joe at different ages. It’s shocking that Trier would use this ultra-conventional narrative technique. He even breaks the film into “chapters,” complete with mind-numbingly literal titles. Chapter Two: Jerome. Guess what happens in that chapter: she meets a guy named Jerome. Chapter Three: Mrs. H. Guess what happens: she meets a woman named Mrs. H!

In most flashback vignettes, Joe is between the ages of about 15 and 25. We watch her lose her virginity (unbelievably boring), then befriend a rebellious girl who teaches her the ways of men. In one somewhat interesting sequence, she and this girl take a long train trip, competing to see which one can have sex with the most men while on the journey.

I would have liked to hear more about what this experience was like for her, but Trier stays resolutely superficial. We watch her wander around the train half-heartedly trying to engage strangers in conversation and then walking them to the toilet where they do the deed standing up — she all the while looking like she’s about to fall asleep. Then the next guy. Then the next. How exciting it is to watch someone with little to no personality go through the motions of mechanical sex over and over.

One might ask: Perhaps Trier intentionally made these scenes repetitive and monotonous in order to show how perfunctory the sex was for her? Fair point. But there are interesting ways to depict someone slipping into auto-pilot and uninteresting ways to do it. More often than not, Volume I does the latter.

There is a brief sequence where Joe and her friend create a semi-Satanic club for girls, chanting (in a language that appears to be Latin) in homage to the vulva. It is quite striking to hear teenage girls chanting like this, resembling a cross between Satanism, Feminism, and Dada. But Trier shows this only briefly, and then he’s back to yawn-inducing sex scenes and the wooden line readings offered by Gainsbourg and Skarsgard on that dismal soundstage.

There is one sublime sequence in Volume I that deserves note. Skarsgard’s character is discussing polyphony (music with different melodies played at the same time) and the extraordinary way that the composer Bach used it. Joe begins to think of three of her early lovers as different melodic lines played simultaneously, giving her life at that time the texture of a Bach piece.

One man is the bass line: heavy, slow-moving, and steady. The others represent passionate, faster-moving lines played at higher octaves — fleet of foot and surprising. While she’s explaining this, Trier plays one of Bach’s gorgeous polyphonic pieces, first isolating its three melodic lines then playing them together, while the screen splits into three, showing each man making love. This was a heavenly sequence, a glorious fusion of music and cinema. It is also one of the only scenes in Volume I that is erotic.

One other use of music in Volume I had the opposite effect. Two times a full song from Rammstein plays. Yes, it’s true, the highly theatrical techno-metal group Rammstein. It’s hard to believe that Trier still finds Rammstein cool. Didn’t they become self-parody by 1999? It’s difficult to guess Trier’s intent. Is it intended to be ironic? Sadly, I don’t think so. All indications are that Trier finds Rammstein’s music — and their gestalt, if you will — interesting. I hear them and envision Dieter, the German film critic  that Mike Myers used to play on Saturday Night Live.

There is so much serious metal music being made today that could have been effectively used in Nymphomaniac. Why would Trier use the cartoon-like Rammstein? Trier has exceptionally good taste in classical music, but his taste in rock is laughably bad.


Volume II

Volume II focuses on Joe’s entry into middle age, including an attempt at marriage and parenthood. It also explores her growing concern about her condition, leading her to try a 12-Step program (Sex Addicts Anonymous). Her sexuality also becomes darker and more strange. Whereas the young Joe required traditional sex often and with many partners, the more mature Joe needs to be beaten up and whipped to get off.

A key reason Volume II is better than Volume I is Gainsbourg. She does a much better job playing Joe than the inexperienced and shallow Stacy Martin, who played Joe through most of Volume I. Martin’s Joe seemed not to have an inner life, but Gainsbourg’s Joe is constantly thinking and feeling. Gainsbourg is one of the best actors working in cinema today. It’s bizarre that she has never been nominated for an Oscar. She also doesn’t get much press in the United States. She ranks up there with Kate Winslet, but the vast majority of Americans would probably not even recognize her name. Very puzzling.

At the beginning of Vol. II, Joe is married (the husband is played by Shia LaBeouf), and they have a baby. The marriage runs into difficulty, largely because of Joe’s voracious sex drive, and she begins to search for satisfaction outside the marriage. Her sex practices also start to darken. She meets a man (Jamie Bell) who specializes in violently whipping women. He comes up with elaborate ways to tie women down and whip them until they bleed and convulse. He also punches them in the face every now and again.

This is not ordinary sado-masochism. There is no “safe word” — no way for the woman to get him to stop if it becomes too much for her. This is true violence, not the sado-masochistic pretend version of it. This raises many questions, including: 1) Is Joe’s body going to give out? Is her sex drive simply too strong for a human body to bear? And 2) Can she continue to be a wife and mother?

In perhaps the most emotionally wrenching sequence in all of Nymphomaniac, Joe leaves her toddler alone in the apartment so she can make one of her appointments with Bell. This puts her son in mortal danger and of course throws the family into crisis.

I will not say how it turns out, but I will say that my heart stopped when the boy wandered out onto the balcony on his own. (If memory serves, there is a very similar sequence in Antichrist and also involves a critique of the mothering skills of Gainsbourg’s character. Just a coincidence?)

Joe is deeply affected by this. Whereas the young Joe was blithely oblivious to the impact her sex drive had on others, the older Joe is anguished over it. This gives Vol. II a much deeper emotional tone than Vol. I.

The final hour of Vol. II sees Joe establish a very surprising bond with a teenage girl. I won’t give away the details, but I will say that it does show the depth of Joe’s parental instincts. This sequence humanizes Joe more than any other. Maybe she could be part of some kind of alternative family, one thinks.

But Trier will not let the Joe character become too tame. He spends much of Volume II humanizing her, making us empathize with her at last. But in the last five minutes, he concocts a devious twist ending which upends all of this. I won’t say what happens. I’ll just say that it involves murder.


Nymphomaniac cannot be recommended highly. It simply has too many boring passages and is ultimately not that deep. But there is something to it. It does have one of the most unique protagonists in cinema history. Joe provides quite a bit of food for thought for the adventurous film-goer.

She raises some interesting questions about the ways that bourgeois society (the society built by the architects of capitalist civilization) deals with life that refuses to be confined. Joe is like a river that floods on a daily basis. How can one live with that kind of extremity? What are the mechanisms to tame this wild beast? The family? Employment? Twelve-Step groups? Pharmaceuticals? What are the countervailing forces, encouraging it to find ever new forms of abandon?

It also raises some interesting questions about cinema. How does cinema handle extremity? Is cinema itself a form of taming? Do we learn to cut off our own forms of excess by modeling our lives on the stable characters in films? Or does cinema encourage abandon? Or is there a complex interplay of both that gets to the root of how cinema traditionally functions?

Do we tame ourselves by going to the movies? By making challenging, avant-garde films? Becoming an uncompromising, radical actress? Composing symphonies?

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.