"Nymphomaniac," a two-part drama from director Lars von Trier, tackles the issue of sex addiction as brutally and unapologetically as "Requiem for a Dream" did with drug addiction. And while this film is unlikely to receive the kind of accolades that "Requiem" did upon its release, it is still a deeply moving film that explores a very real and very disturbing problem. The film boasts a number of well-known actors, including Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist), Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction), Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) and Christian Slater (True Romance), who each bring the film to life with all-around solid performances.
The film, right from the opening scene, lets you know pretty quickly what you're in for. It opens in England on a snowy evening where a woman (Gainsbourg) lies beaten and unconscious in an alleyway, where she is helped by a lonely older man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). After she refuses to let him call the police, he takes her back to his apartment, where of course, he asks to know what happened to her. The woman, named Joe, reveals to him that she is a nymphomaniac and explains that in order for him to truly understand how she ended up in the alley, she would have to start from the very beginning. This is where the story really begins, and through extended flashbacks, we are transported to the earlier days of Joe's life (the younger Joe is played by Stacy Martin), beginning with her childhood where she was raised by her cold, distant mother (Connie Nielson) and her devoted father (Christian Slater). Troubled by her parents' dysfunctional relationship, Joe has gone through life with an antagonistic view of love. She also finds it difficult to feel emotionally connected to anyone or anything. In fact, the only means she has of filling this void is through sex. She goes from having sex just to try it to engaging in a contest with her friend over who can have sex with the most men on a train, all for a bag of chocolates. It's not too long before Joe's social and emotional fulfillment consist entirely of sex, reaching a point to where she has so many lovers that she can't even tell them apart and must resort to listing them as letters of the alphabet. Her addiction is such that even after being confronted by the heartbroken wife of one her lovers, played with great intensity by Uma Thurman, she continues on with her lifestyle despite the toll her actions are taking on her.
Suffice it to say, this film is not for everyone, and it certainly isn't trying to be. The film is very explicit in its language and depictions of sex, and therefore it's not going to appeal to people who find such content offensive. Now, on the other hand, if you're going into this hoping for "50 Shades of Grey: the Movie," then this is not the film you're looking for. There may be numerous sex scenes in the film and they are indeed graphic, but only because of how realistic they feel. They are not meant to be gratuitous or sexy. In fact, quite the opposite. During these scenes, you feel the kind of discomfort that you would with a film about a drug addict in that you are witnessing a person destroy themselves. As an audience member, you want to reach out to Joe and tell her to stop but of course, you can't, making it all the more distressing to watch. This is not what you'd call "a light at the end of the tunnel" kind of movie, another reason why it's definitely not for everybody.
That said, to anyone who truly appreciates the kind of great filmmaking that this is, then I would daresay this is a must-see. On a visual level, this has to be one of the most beautifully shot films I've seen in a long time. In the beginning scene alone, there's a shot of snow falling in an alleyway and it's done in a way where the snow looks like it's popping right off the screen.
The performances are really what make this film work as well as it does. Charlotte Gainsbourg, who, despite not being in the film all that much, is captivating whenever she's onscreen. She deftly captures Joe's despair and self-hatred so that despite her wrongdoings, we still feel sympathy towards her. Stacy Martin as young Joe likewise captures the character's lack of social confidence. I can see many young actresses being intimidated to take on a role as physically demanding as this, but Martin handles her numerous sex scenes very professionally. Stellan Skarsgard is completely charming and funny as Joe's seemingly nonjudgmental savior who continually tries to justify her actions to her, even going so far as to compare her condition to fly-fishing. I would say that Shia LaBeouf is the weakest link here, who just kind of mumbles his way through his lines, probably to hide his atrocious attempt at a cockney accent. He's not bad in the film, but compared to the performances of his fellow cast members, his feels the least inspired. On the other hand, a performance that does feel very inspired comes from Christian Slater as Joe's father. Seriously, how long has it been since you could say that? Slater, in the limited screen time he is given, proves that he can do much more than a decent Jack Nicholson impersonation and has a much wider range than he gets credit for. The relationship between his character and Joe is beautiful and heartwarming and it makes you want to see more of Slater again. Hopefully this film will help to put him back on the map and that he'll get some more films worth his talent. Fingers crossed.
"Nymphomaniac" is very bold in how it addresses sex addiction. It does not point fingers or try to vilify sex addicts but rather explores the psychology of someone driven to this kind of lifestyle. Despite how disturbing and gloomy this film is, I still greatly look forward to Volume Two (which comes out this April)and am curious to see how this fascinating story concludes. I give this film five stars and only hope that the second part of the film is just as impressive.