WARNING: The following review contains some sexually explicit language and spoilers for the film (although major spoilers are marked at the end).
Before watching Nymphomaniac it’s important to know several things:
- The uncut version of the film is 325 minutes. The ‘cut’ version is 241 minutes. Volume one individually is 145/117 minutes, and volume two is 180/124 minutes.
- People will usually assume that a film titled Nymphomaniac is a porno, and not a rich cinematic study of sexuality and eroticism beyond what Fifty Shades of Grey could ever hope to portray. They will assume that you’re watching a porno even if you tell them this.
- This film was given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, but surrendered the rating and is released as an ‘unrated’ film. I’ll go more into why this is a good thing later.
- The last ninety seconds of this film will ruin your life, completely change your perspective on how you view this film and its characters, and how you see Stellan Skarsgård for the rest of eternity.
At its most basic Nymphomaniac is a film about Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin), a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who is found at the beginning lying on the ground with blood on her face and bruises all over. She is taken in by a kindly man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes care of her and listens as she begins to tell the story of how she ended up in the alley. This is, of course, a story that has to start at the earliest beginning of childhood and work its way up to adulthood.
Nymphomaniac is told in eight chapters, each guiding Joe’s story along and allowing for jumps between places and times. With each chapter, we get the promised sex, debauchery, and less-than-virtuous things that make Joe happy. We also get Seligman’s input and view on these events and her own self-loathing, along with some interesting detours where he equates everyday things to the milestones of her sexual awakening i.e. comparing fly fishing to two girls seeing who can seduce the most men on a train.
In the first chapter, we’re also introduced to the love of Joe’s life, Jerôme—played by Shia LeBeouf (who has definitely outgrown the role from Holes and is definitely no longer a baby). He is the man/boy (his age changes, but he physically does not with the exception of growing a beard) who takes Joe’s virginity in Fibonacci sequence with three thrusts vaginally and five thrusts anally. Yes, that’s some kind of romance. Jerôme appears throughout the movie in many coincidental twists of fate. When Joe gets a job as a secretary, who’s her boss? Jerôme. However, she spurns his affections, sleeps with other co-workers, and realizes her feelings only for him to run away with a female co-worker before she can tell him. He, much later, finds her and they return to their romance, but with sad consequences.
Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure. This for a nymphomaniac is the equivalent of Hell.
Despite this, Jerôme and Joe are able to have a nice life and a baby together. However, Joe’s sexual appetite is more than Jerôme can handle and he allows her to take other lovers—which of course comes to bite them in the ass later. Despite all of this, she becomes bored with sex and tries to add more spice to her love life, trying a threesome with two African brothers who don’t speak English and then visiting a professional Dominant, K (played marvelously by Jamie Bell), to delve into the world of sadomasochism. However, she neglects her domestic life and has to choose between Jerôme and her son or K. She chooses K, Jerôme leaves, and her son is put in foster care. So, yeah, depressing.
Jerôme appears many years later when Joe has become a debt collector, a person who she can’t face so she sends her apprentice in to deal with it, leading to the apprentice and Jerôme shacking up. Betrayed, Joe takes a gun and, forgetting to rack the pistol, doesn’t end up shooting them. Because of this she’s assaulted by Jerôme, humiliated by her apprentice, and then they have sex in front of her.
That’s how she’s found at the beginning of the movie.
There are other little stories within the overall plot. There’s an especially amazing scene with Uma Thurman as the wife of one of the men that Joe sleeps with. She basically confronts Joe and the man in Joe’s apartment, takes her children there too, and is all like, “Here’s the bed where your father ruined our marriage.” She steals that scene.
Willem Dafoe plays Joe’s boss when she’s a debt collector, a not-so-great man who basically gets her to groom a young girl into doing what she does (with the horrible effects mentioned earlier).
There’s a scene with equivalency placed between different lovers and polyphony. One lover completely takes care of Joe, another uses her in animalistic lust, and the other is Jerôme, when they were in love and all was good.
There’s a horribly touching chapter about how Joe deals with her father’s deteriorating health and death, showing that her nymphomania controls her in grief even though it can also bring her joy.
I’m honestly glad that they turned away the NC-17 rating for one main reason. In a day and age where male nudity in media is hotly debated (I’m looking at you Game of Thrones!) here comes this little film with a montage of penises and testicles. The amount of female nudity is equal to the amount of male nudity shown. So while you’ll see plenty of breasts and butts, there’s also plenty of nude men—which is something unique within today’s media and traces back to feminism and other issues of sociology, but this isn’t quite the place for that.
Dealing with sexuality, Nymphomaniac is fantastic because it deals with a sexual female and her desires and feelings, but it doesn’t treat her as a whore or slut (even if she sees herself that way at times). At the beginning of Volume II, Joe asks Seligman why he’s not reacting how she expects to her stories, because usually by now the men she’s tried telling her life to have become aroused and they’re having sex. Seligman reveals that he is asexual and a virgin; thus making him the perfect audience for her story—as well as representing a sexual orientation that is often underrepresented in the media.
On the subject of the sadomasochistic scenes, they are a better representation of what people seek from these types of relationships than Fifty Shades of Grey could ever get close to. Yes, it is violent and unflinching, but there’s never a question of consent. Joe wants this, needs to have this type of contact in her life, and it’s fulfilled by K. Yes, at times, it does bend the ‘laws’ of BDSM since K says that there are no safe words once Joe enters the room, but—at the same time—he reads her, gives only as much as she can take, and allows her to leave when she wants to. The scenes between Joe and K were a pleasure to watch, even if I had to close my eyes several times because I was just like, “Ouch!”
Overall, Nymphomaniac is a very long film about female sexuality that doesn’t ridicule the idea of itself. Women can have desires and sexual needs to, and that doesn’t make them any less human or any less normal. It addresses the balance between work and pleasure, love and lust, but never seems to overdo what it presents. The cinematography is great with lots of artistic sequences, and a lot of the nature scenes are beautiful.
Do I recommend this film? If you have four or five hours to spend, want to explore the realm of sexuality, won’t flinch at lots of nudity and sex, then yes. As far as I know it should be available to stream on Netflix (both the uncut and cut versions of the film in two parts), and I think that it could provoke a lot of discussions on important topics within society that may make some people squeamish.
This is the end of the formal review. What follows is a rant on the last ninety seconds of the film and why they ruin the entire thing. There will be mild spoilers.
Okay, so you watch almost four hours of this film. You’ve gone with Joe on this tale of redemption and sadness and wanton need and you’re in the home stretch. Everything seems like it’s going to get better, she’s made a new friend who doesn’t lust after her, and she seems to have let a great weight off of her shoulders.
THEN IT BASICALLY GETS RAPED.
Seligman, the asexual, kindly man who is played by Stellan Skarsgård and thus who you associate with happy, funny times, comes back into the room while Joe is sleeping and makes a move on her. The man we have trusted for this entire film acts in such an out of character way and betrays the audience’s trust and rapes it away from us. If the director wanted to make a statement about not trusting strangers or just don’t trust anyone period then he did it, because now I am not able to look at darling Stellan Skarsgård the same way ever again.
The ending is ambiguous is some fashion—which is annoying because it had a good ending! It was great that we ended with some compassion and hope for our heroine, but, no, that couldn’t stay. We had to go back into the frustrating, depressing pit that is her life as a nymphomaniac and what society thinks of sexual women.
I mean, the last line in the film is Seligman saying, “But you’ve…you’ve fucked thousands of men.”
It seriously ruins the whole film.
So if you ignored my warning and read this then I just recommend stopping the film after Joe goes to sleep. It’s a much more optimistic film and less of an F-you to the audience.
But, other than the last ninety seconds, yeah it’s good.