'Nymphomaniac: Vol. I' is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who is discovered badly beaten in an alley by an older bachelor, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes her into his home. As he tends to her wounds, she recounts the erotic story of her adolescence and young-adulthood (portrayed in flashback by newcomer Stacy Martin). 'Nymphomaniac: Vol. II' picks up with the story of Joe's adulthood, where her journey of self-discovery leads to darker complications.
Although you wouldn't have guessed it from all the pre-release hype for the film, Lars Von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac' is not an attempt at making a mainstream porn film. Nor is it a release that tries to push the limits of mainstream eroticism. In fact, there's nothing erotic or sexy about the movie at all, despite pushing the envelope on what audiences are used to seeing in a feature film as far as sexuality is concerned. Maybe that's the point Von Trier is trying to make, sex is part of his main character's everyday life, with nothing arousing or titillating about it.
The story revolves around a woman named Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg in the 'present', but played by Stacy Martin in about half of the movie's flashbacks), who is found beaten and bruised in an alley by a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) as Vol. I of this two-volume title gets underway. Joe refuses to go to the hospital, so Seligman takes her back to his place to nurse her back to health. While recovering, Joe begins to tell him the stories of all her past sexual encounters, which are broken up into titled chapters and make up the majority of both Vol. I and Vol. II.
Joe's flashback stories in Vol. I include how she lost her virginity to a boy named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf), whom she'll later become much more involved with; one where she and a friend have a contest to see how many men they can be with sexually on a train trip (the winner gets a bag of sweets); and a black and white segment that details how her father (Christian Slater) passed away. All of the Vol. I flashbacks have Stacy Martin playing a young Joe. In Vol. II, Charlotte Gainsbourg gets the bulk of the screentime, as flashbacks show a darker period in her sexual desire, as she seeks out the company of an African stranger (and, to her surprise, his brother) in one of the movie's chapters, then starts to explore her sadomasochistic side in another.
What makes 'Nymphomaniac' both rather odd and occasionally darkly humorous is Seligman's reaction to all the stories that Joe is telling him. While Joe is a character whose very existence seems to stem from and revolve around her sexual explorations, Seligman is the complete opposite – an older man who has never been in a serious relationship and whose knowledge of the world comes almost exclusively from the books he has read. Therefore, every time Joe tells him about an aspect of her life, Seligman makes a correlation with something he's learned from his reading – starting with fishing when Joe tells her first story, but also covering mathematics, music, and science as both volumes proceed.
Of course, what message Von Trier is trying to deliver in 'Nymphomaniac' is largely left up for the viewer to decide. I'm assuming it's no coincidence that, for all the sexual adventures that Joe has in the movie, all of them are ones that she seeks out on her own and is a willing participant in. Von Trier also goes out of his way to portray Joe's father (which just might be the best supporting performance in the movie) as a kind and decent man, so as not to suggest that there was anything about Joe's upbringing that caused her to turn out the way that she did. Again, it's worth noting that there's nothing erotic about 'Nymphomaniac', but that doesn't mean it's not a quite watchable movie. Unless one is highly offended by seeing the genitalia of both sexes on screen, there's actually very little here of 'shock' value.
One thing did bother me about the film(s), and that's the way in which Von Trier chose to wrap things up. I won't spoil the ending for those who have a desire to watch it, but I will say that the ending of Vol. II has one of the characters acting in a way that seems diametrically opposed to the way they conducted themselves up until this point in the movie(s). I suppose that could also be a deliberate statement about the nature of people that Von Trier is trying to convey, but it feels like a rather weak and cheap way to provide an ending to his story.
While I can't imagine a scenario where I'd sit down and watch 'Nymphomaniac' a second time (unless the rumored release of an extended 5-plus-hour cut of the film finds its way to Blu-ray), I also didn't feel like my time was wasted viewing it – thanks to some pretty impressive acting from the cast, particularly (and surprisingly) by Christian Slater and newcomer Stacy Martin. Overall, Vol. I is the more enjoyable half of the two parts, as it's more lighthearted with occasional tinges of dark comedy (one chapter featuring Uma Thurman as a jilted wife approaches downright farce), but both Volumes prove to be worth a look, even if – like me – you'll probably just watch them the one time.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II' arrives on Blu-ray in a eco-friendly Elite keepcase that houses Vol. I on the inside left and Vol. II on the inside right. Both discs are 50GB dual-layer Blu-rays. Both Vol. I and Vol. II are front-loaded with trailers for Filth, Grand Piano, 'The Double' (the Jesse Eisenberg movie, not the Richard Gere one), and The Sacrament, plus an ad for AXS TV. The main menu consists of stills of the actors in the poses they have on the box cover, but with either a red tint (for Vol. I) or a pink tint (for Vol. II). Menu selections run down the left side of the screen.
In addition to this two-volume Blu-ray release, two single edition Blu-rays have also been released. The three options are also available in the DVD format. The same special features are available on all releases and formats (attached to their respective volumes).
The Blu-ray has been encoded for Region A only.
According to the information I could gather searching the Internet, both volumes of 'Nymphomaniac' were shot digitally, using primarily Arri Alexa cameras. However, even though the film was shot digitally, each segment of the movie (which is broken up into titled chapters as Joe talks about her past to Seligman) has very much its own distinct look. The scenes set in the present with Joe and Seligman have a slight grain to them that looks very much like film, while most of the scenes in the past involving a younger Joe have a much sharper look to them. The chapter that has the sharpest, most digital-like look to it is actually the black and white footage that takes place in Vol. I (the chapter that details the passing of Joe's father), while the grainiest of the footage (which almost looks like 16mm film) takes place in Vol. II (when Joe's character meets up with a character played by Willem Dafoe).
Because most of the chapters in the two volumes change their look from the prior ones, there's often a huge difference in terms of detail, clarity, and sharpness to what one is viewing. I didn't see 'Nymphomaniac' in the theaters, but I'm assuming that what we're seeing on Blu-ray is a pretty accurate rendering of what the film looked like on the big screen. That said, much of the movie is rather drab looking, and even the sharply detailed scenes show a lack of color and 'pop' to them, giving them a very (and most likely intentional) sterile look.
'Nymphomaniac' doesn't arrive on Blu-ray without a tinge of controversy. Apparently, the 'Mrs. H' (Chapter 3 in Vol. I) segment of the movie appeared in theaters and on VOD at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Here, it's presented in 2.35:1 (as is the majority of Vol. I and II). I haven't watched it, but I hear the UK Blu-ray of 'Nymphomaniac' (released by Artificial Eye, but also Region B locked) maintains the original 1.85:1 framing for that segment. Oddly, there's a minor (just a few seconds) flashback to the 'Mrs. H' chapter in Vol. II that is shown in 1.85:1.
The only audio option here is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which is rather unspectacular, although it manages to be free of any noticeable glitches and renders its dialogue (all of it from up front) crisply. There's little, if any, noticeable directionality in the track, nor is there much use of low-end frequency. The rear speakers are active, but only apparently so when the soundtrack (no original score here, just a combination of classic music and modern rock) kicks in.
If one disregards the sex scenes in the movie, the vast majority of both volumes of 'Nymphomanic' is primarily characters talking to one another, which means there's not a whole lot of activity for this lossless track. Of course, this lack of activity has to do with the movie itself and not any issues with the track, so it can be fairly stated that the audio here is quite representative of how the movie should sound.
Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
'Nymphomaniac' is something that I probably wouldn't want to sit through a second time, but I can't say it doesn't contain some very watchable moments. Although it does include its fair share of sex and nudity (some of which pushes the limits for a mainstream film), there's nothing erotic about the proceedings here, and those expecting something close to mainstream porn won't find it with this title. However, if you're comfortable with nudity and enjoy watching some good actors (and a good director) at work, both these volumes are worth at least one viewing.