Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

Apr 2, 2014

It's not porn; it just looks like it.

Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1

Grade: B+

Director: Lars von Trier (Run Lola Run)

Screenplay: von Trier

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg (Melancholia), Stellan Skarsgard (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Rating: NR

Runtime: 118 min.

by John DeSando

“It's actually the souls of the trees we're seeing in the winter. In summer everything is green and idyllic but in the winter, the branches and the trunks all stand out. Just look at how crooked they all are. The branches have to carry all the leaves to the sunlight. That's one long struggle for survival.” Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg)

In Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1, Lars von Trier has creates a stunning if perplexing study of sexual desire, obsession, and freedom mostly from the life story of a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, Joe. As the above quote suggests, it’s a lonely struggle. Her motivations are revealed in forms so often obscure that I’m reminded of Steve McQueen’s Boon Hogganbeck in the Reivers when he tries to explain to a boy what the nude painting hanging in a brothel means: “It’s a mystery.”

After having been beaten in an alley, Joe tells her story to generous-hearted intellectual Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who takes her in. Her interest in sex from early childhood, evidenced by shenanigans with a young libertine, B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), and reckless experimenting never wanes to the time we see her bed-ridden from her beating.

As Freud would concur, she must have some influence from a stern mother and liberal father, never enough to explain her obsession, but enough to understand some of her influences. She has happily tended to multiple men and only briefly mentions the specter that may haunt many nymphomaniacs: loneliness.

How she could endure the endless number of men (sometimes 10 a night) is best explained by a sequence that has a mother with three children in tow, Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), confront philandering dad at Joe’s place after he told her he was leaving his family for Joe. Joe is little affected by the strange and unnerving visit. In addition, during sex with another man, she screams she can’t feel anything. Her distance from her circumstances  shows how she indulges her lust and feels little remorse.

While Joe navigates away from love, except for her father, B whispers to her about the influence of love, a new concept for both of them. Joe remains steadfast: “No, no, no, it's worse. Love distorts things. Or even worse, love is something you've never asked for.”

So we have Volume II to look forward to, and meanwhile  Trier has exposed the certain complexity in Joe and the non-judgmental necessity for the rest of us about this mystery called SEX:

“Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I've always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That's perhaps my only sin.” Joe

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at