Movie Review: ‘Nymphomaniac’ Goes More Than Skin Deep

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I,” 118 min.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II,” 123 min.
Rated NC-17
Stars: , , , , , , , and

Rating: 3.5/5

Though sex on the big screen existed long before controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier (“Antichrist,” 2009) stepped onto the scene, the Danish writer and director is undoubtedly one of the art’s great and most unabashed provocateurs.

In 1998, he started a trend, featuring unsimulated sex with his actors in “The Idiots,” a concept many international filmmakers ran with. Today, von Trier still embraces this idea and carries it over into his two-part exploration of sexuality, “Nymphomaniac.”

“Nymphomaniac” is a classic frame narrative, in which a sex-obsessed woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells her life story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a man who found her in a back alley beat to a pulp. Their conversation is the backbone of the film, with Joe’s sex adventures and Seligman’s life interests divided into chapters.

Those who’ve stomached the work of Lars von Trier know his films are not the type of movies you want to watch right before you go to sleep, or eat, or before anything, really. He’s unapologetically confident in his artistry and is not afraid to test new waters, as well as audiences’ limitations. But despite how often his films make us toss and turn in our sleep, von Trier is so inventive and full of cinematographic exuberance that it’s hard not to be impressed by his work.


“Nymphomaniac” epitomizes his talents as a bold filmmaker. In the film he often uses animation, split screens, black-and-white and sometimes a fast succession of snapshots. These film styles make for a surprisingly quirky movie, which most audiences will be thankful for, given the subject material.

So much attention is being paid to the amount of male and female gentalia shown in the picture, and yes, it very much earns its NC-17 rating. One wouldn’t recommend taking someone out on a first date to it. But “Nymphomaniac” is more than just a film about sex. It’s a vehicle that analyzes the role and influence of obsession in human relationships.

In one key scene in “Vol. I” we see Seligman compare Joe’s complicated love life to his favorite piece of polyphonic organ music, which may seem a bit odd on paper, but on screen unfolds in a very comical and interesting way. In the scene, Joe takes this idea and shares how her lovers compare to three melodic tunes in the music. But what makes the film even more riveting is the way that von Trier chose to visualize it. He uses a three-way split screen to show cross cuttings of the organ and Joe’s lovers— a bizarre metaphor, nonetheless, but an engaging way to view relationships.

While “Vol. II” lacks the playfulness of “Vol. I,” as a whole, “Nymphomaniac” is one of the most unique narratives put on the screen in the past few years. If you can look further than mainstream cinema and get past the graphic nature of the film, this is a great and dramatic story to get lost in.

“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” and “Vol. II” are currently available on iTunes and On Demand, and will get a limited release on April 4 and The Magnolia Theater in Dallas.

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Previously published on

Center Photo: Stacy Martin plays the young Joe and the scene-stealing Uma Thurman portrays Mrs. H. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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