Nymphomaniac: first reviews of Von Trier's unsexy sex epic

Dec 18, 2013

It's a four-hour marathon with plenty of flesh but sex films don't come any more cerebral than this

WITH scenes of oral sex, anal sex and threesomes, Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac was dubbed as "art porn" when the trailer initially emerged. But the first critics to watch the four-hour epic have described it as "deliberately unsexy".

The two-part production is divided into eight stylistically distinct chapters - cut down from the Danish director's original five-and-a-half-hour version - depicting the life of lonely sex addict Joe from the age of zero to the age of 50. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe in her older years, while British newcomer Stacy Martin plays the character in her youth, with supporting performances from Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater and Uma Thurman.

"Hang on to your seat back, your Bible, or the hand of a friend. Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac bludgeons the body and tenderises the soul," says Xan Brooks in The Guardian.

Brooks says it is "a false bill of goods" in that it is "a film about sex that is deliberately unsexy". He describes it as a "bruising, gruelling experience" for the viewer but it has nevertheless stayed with him. "Nymphomaniac annoys me, repels me, and I think I might love it. It's an abusive relationship; I need to see it again," he says.

In Variety, Peter Debruge says the truth of the matter is that people can find far more explicit imagery with a simple Google search. "Racy subject aside, the film provides a good-humoured yet serious-minded look at sexual self-liberation, thick with references to art, music, religion and literature, even as it pushes the envelope with footage of acts previously relegated to the sphere of pornography."

There is "plenty of flesh", says Dave Calhoun in Times Out, but the film is "rarely, if ever, what most people would call erotic or pornographic". Calhoun describes it as "an X-rated farce, a circus of genitalia" that is neither deeply serious nor totally insincere. "It creates its own mesmerising power by floating above specifics of time and place, undercutting its main focus with bizarre digressions (fly-fishing, maths, religion), a ragbag of acting styles and archive footage."

Geoffrey Macnab in The Independent says it is a "serious art house drama with a self-conscious literary structure and a frame of reference that ranges from Bach to Fibonacci numbers, from Poe to The Compleat Angler".

There is a "tremendous cameo" from Uma Thurman as the aggrieved wife of one of Joe's many lovers, says Macnab, while Jamie Bell "brings a miasmatic whiff of 50 Shades Of Grey as a sadist".

At times, the film slips into bathos, says Macnab. "Nonetheless, Nymphomaniac is a serious piece of work bursting with ideas. Sex films don't come any more cerebral than this."

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