Lars von Trier (Melancholia) is back at it again. The art house director is content to provoke, use sex to stir the pot, and to use his visual skills to tell a winding story that, in the end, may leave one feeling like they’ve travelled a harrowing journey to learn some great secret, only to have it revealed that the secret was, well, it’s just sex and violence.
In the two-volume sprawl that is Nymphomaniac (and the films being reviewed here have actually been cut down from their originally intended, even more graphic lengths) the writer/director crafts a seemingly existential story of a woman, Joe (played in her teens and twenties by Stacy Martin and as an older adult by Charlotte Gainsbourg), who awakens to her sexuality at a very young age. In the opening sequences of the film (a very melodramatic scene overlaid with heavy metal in a dark alleyway) the violently attacked Joe is rescued by the kind and gentle Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who removes her to his place so she can tarry and recover. There, she begins to relate to Seligman her story of how she wound up there. How she is a nymphomaniac. How she began prowling around for men on the railroad with her best friend and having contests about who could bag the most sexual conquests. How she started juggling multiple partners – up to seven at a time – at once to satisfy her needs, until, finally, her sexual sensations went numb, and she had to up the ante, so to speak. It all unfolds like something out of Lady Chatterly’s Lovers. Seligman, meanwhile, tries to rationalize Joe’s life stories, bringing in all forms of philosophy, numerology, and religion to reassure her she’s not a bad person.
In the second volume, dominated by Gainsbourg as Joe, her story turns even darker. She’s now become a complete masochist and turned to a life of crime, the same life of crime that would eventually lead to her being left, beaten in the alleyway. Only, now, in this second half, von Trier has left us without reason to feel any sympathy whatsoever for Joe. In Volume I, it was like she was a lost puppy trying to find her way, unsure of herself, carried away by certain bad events from her life – a coldhearted mother, the death of her beloved father, a bad early sexual experience. Now, she seeks out the bad sex, “the bad men” as one chapter is actually called, and the rough sex. She partakes, she dishes it out. She does and says very bad things. All the protestations from Seligman that she is not a bad person seem to ring hollow.
By the time we reach the finale, the veiled finale that robs us of any closure whatsoever, after having invested over four hours in this miserable woman’s life, nothing has been elucidated. We’ve seen people do the nasty, get roughed up, and seen some bad things happen to people.
Nymphomaniac was shot in high definition on the Arri Alexa Plus and Canon EOS 5D Mark II (for certain shots) and brought to Blu-ray by Magnolia in an AVC/MPEG-4 1080p encodement. While the overall quality does vary aesthetically (there are plenty of very purposely gritty moments), this is a generally pleasing transfer that can sometimes pass for film. The contrast is good, although it does look a little pale in places, meaning the gamma might be a notch or two high, making the black levels look not quite as inky as they could have been. There are no instances of compression noise or posterization to speak of.
A mostly dialogue-driven affair, the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) soundtrack across both volumes have a natural dynamic range that stretches from the very quite, almost whisper to the loudest, like the opening heavy metal title sequence. There are ample moments for the mix to expand itself as well, like a rainstorm that drip-drops through the surround channels or a train ride that engulfs you. Dialogue is clear, and when things get heated, all the moans, grunts, and groans are as believable as one would desire them to be.
- The Characters (1080p/24; 00:09:30)
- AXS TV: A L()()K at Nymph()maniac (1080i/60; 00:03:02)
- Nymph()maniac Volume I Trailer (2.35:1; 1080p/24; 00:01:47)
- Magnolia Home Entertainment Trailers
- The Director (1080p/24; 00:08:50)
- The Sex (1080p/24; 00:07:13)
- Nymph()maniac Volume II Trailer (1080p/24; 00:01:45)
- Magnolia Home Entertainment Trailers
The Definitive Word
Nymphomaniac is a pretentious, near-porn film. It fools you into believing you are experiencing something profound, but, in fact, von Trier is giving you nothing but beautifully filmed sex with some flowery words about seemingly deep subjects peppered around. This is a miss.