To von Trier fans, this is a bold, funny, challenging film. To his detractors, not so much.
Lee Zachariah
Published on March 23, 2014


Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) comes across Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), lying broken and beaten in the street. She refuses an ambulance, so he takes her back to his house, where she tells him the story of lifelong obsession with sex.

Nymphomaniac is, in many territories around the world, released in two separate parts. In Australia, we are getting the whole thing in one massive four-hour go, albeit with some of the more extreme material cut. Although it's hard to imagine they cut much, given what's left in.

There's a good chance that Nymphomaniac will confirm your preconceived notions of director Lars von Trier. To his fans, it is a bold, funny, challenging film that dives headlong into a difficult subject. To his detractors, it is further evidence that von Trier's idea of provocative cinema is a rote combination of mental illnesses and genital close-ups.

I should confess at this point that I am traditionally a von Trier detractor, but one who claimed his previous work, Melancholia, to be one of 2011's best films. Nymphomaniac, however, is a litany of his worst tendencies.

He seems terrified of sincerity; every moment that comes dangerously close to a human emotion is immediately undercut with a cynical aside as we cut jarringly back to the 'present -day' story. What should be a clever framing device becomes a get-out-of-jail free card for von Trier. Joe and Seligman fall over themselves to acknowledge the extraordinary coincidences in Joe's story, as if von Trier thinks this makes up for lazy writing. Or is winking at us to show us the lazy writing is deliberate. Either way, he seems to believe a veil of self-aware cynicism insulates him against potential criticism. It does not.

Now, it must be acknowledged that making fun of Shia LaBeouf these days is like shooting fish in a barrel, and must only be attempted when the situation absolutely calls for it. This is one such situation. Casting LaBeouf as one of the 'English' characters feels like von Trier's biggest prank, and LaBeouf enters each scene as if he was asked to try some sort of Britishy accent moments before 'action!' was called. I'm not saying it's bad; I'm saying nobody's allowed to make fun of Dick Van Dyke ever again.

There's an adage in filmmaking that if you have a great ending, audiences will forgive any trespasses. And Nymphomaniac, I must confess, has a great ending. It went out on such an impressive note, it almost made me forget my problems with the proceeding four hours.


Ardent fans of von Trier will find much to enjoy in this film, as he continues exploring the themes and styles of works such as Breaking the Waves, Dogville and Dancer in the Dark. If you do not count yourself as a fan, then I suggest you stay well away.


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