Nymphomaniac is a pretty good film, and not for the reasons that you would think it would be. It is a strangely pieced-together four-hour, episodic adventure through the life of a woman who can’t seem to get enough sex, but really the sex acts as a backdrop for a greater point that the film is trying to make. And, remarkably, the film belittles its audience for attempting to sense a greater meaning. It’s a paradoxical puzzle of a film that wants its audience to just sit back and enjoy the story, but often takes steps to pull the viewer out of the experience and remind them that they are watching an art piece that is subject to interpretation. In short, this is a film critic’s wet dream and worst nightmare rolled into a package that defies analysis yet seems to be constantly inviting it.
The film opens on our protagonist, Joe, beaten bloody in a back alley, where she is discovered by an academic named Seligman, who takes her back to his apartment to nurse her back to health. When asked how she got there, she proceeds to tell her life story in eight chapters, revealing a life where sex has been the sun around which she revolves. It is at times humorous, and at times heartbreaking, and Joe’s journey remains compelling throughout. However, I wouldn’t recommend going into this film expecting a coherent opinion on sexuality’s role in our lives. Much of Joe’s actions and the things that happen to her revolve around the theme, and the unsimulated sex scenes are certainly explicit enough, but I don’t think there’s much in the way of social commentary here; if there was an attempt to analyze sexual politics, it isn’t apparent.
No, what this film seems to want to focus on is that Seligman constantly interrupts Joe’s narrative, trying to find meaning in her life story through allegory, history, and mythology, while Joe repeatedly insists that there’s no greater meaning to her tale and that this is just what has happened to her. Seligman’s observations are simultaneously profound and asinine. Director Lars Von Trier recognizes that there are parallels in his work to his literary predecessors, but he’s just trying to tell a story here. Except, obviously, the film does not simply want passive observation, or else the Seligman framing device wouldn’t exist in the first place.
What results is a film that takes a stab at the very nature of critiquing film as an art form. It uses the tricks of the trade that have accumulated over centuries, going so far as to borrow some aesthetics from various eras in film history, in order to create an art film that defies the very nature of art film: the desire to be analyzed. I’m sure there are plenty of arguments that could be made about how the individual chapters of the film act as commentaries on different film styles; I’m not familiar with Von Trier’s previous work, but I’ve read that Nymphomaniac is rife with self-reference to his filmography. Ultimately, though, any such analysis flies in the face of the film’s self-professed point that symbolism is subservient to plot and characters, and Nymphomaniac does tell an entertaining story. This review may have been light on the story elements, but that’s only because the tale is complex enough that a summation would not do it justice and would likely detract from the experience of seeing it firsthand.
And so, Nymphomaniac is a paradox of a film, and whether or not the subtext appeals to you, it is a good film at that. It has been released in two parts, approximately two hours each in length. It is a time investment, but one that I think worth it. Check it out.
Is subtextual analysis of a film really as pointless as this film suggests? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.