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Review: ‘Nymphomaniac, Volume 1’

Bad Boy Von Trier Tries To Get A Rise Out Of Audiences

Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin in Lars Von Trier's

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Above: Sophie Kennedy Clark and Stacy Martin in Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac, Volume 1."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac, Volume 1."


Both controversy and acclaim have followed Danish director Lars Von Trier since his first international hit in 1996, "Breaking the Waves." He continues to enjoy provoking audiences with his latest film, "Nymphomaniac, Volume 1" (opening March 21 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas).

The Landmark Theatres website warns: "'Nymphomaniac' contains graphic depictions of sexuality to a degree unprecedented in a mainstream feature film. NO ONE UNDER 18 WILL BE ADMITTED." (Caps and boldface are theirs.)

Well. That’s one way to arouse people’s interest in an art house film about depression. "Nymphomaniac" (broken into two volumes for release in most countries and supposedly "censored," although with Von Trier you might consider it a publicity stunt) is the final film in the Lars Von Trier Depression Trilogy (The other two being "Antichrist" and "Melancholia"). But in typical Von Trier fashion he doesn’t deliver on expectations. So while he promises titillating porn and complains about having to cut scenes out, he ultimately delivers a surprisingly tame (considering the topic) portrait of a sex addict played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Joe (played by Gainsbourg as an adult and Stacy Martin as a teenager) explains her life in a series of chapters to a stranger named Seligman (Von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgård) who takes her in after he finds her injured by his apartment.

Companion Viewing

"Breaking the Waves" (1996)

"Antichrist" (2009)

"Melancholia" (2011)

The film opens with stark contrasts. Silence followed by Rammstein's industrial metal music blaring then intercut with Bach. Visually we see an injured — possibly beaten — young woman and an man trying to help her. The two people are a contrast too. Joe, the injured woman, describes herself as a nymphomaniac, and Seligman we will discover (in volume 2) is a virgin. As she recounts her sexual exploits, he responds with odd comments that sometimes seem awkwardly disconnected. But they play well off each other. His unwillingness to pass any moral judgement seems to make her open up in a way she doesn't seem to have done in the past.

Joe at one point explains how as a teenager she started a club for girls who wanted to explore their sexuality without the limitation of conventional social morays. She says she was rebelling against love and was "committed to combat love in a love-fixated society."

Von Trier is a rebel too and dedicated to combatting all sorts of things. He hates to conform and he loves to provoke. His films are more about ideas and reactions than a traditional narrative. And you cannot discount his off screen behavior because it may be part of a bigger work of art that he is slyly creating.

With "Nymphomaniac," he makes a film about a sex addict in part to expose our inhibitions and stereotypes about love, sex and desire. It’s also a way for him to explore indirectly the complexities of his own depression.

"Nymphomaniac, Volume 1" — like most of Von Trier’s work — is slippery to describe. It’s brutal but darkly comic, honest yet obscure, and Von Trier is both artistic genius and bad boy prankster. Bottom line, "Nymphomaniac" is experimental and unpredictable, yet exactly what you’d expect from Von Trier.

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