Nymphomaniac’s loveless collage of sex-capades redefines female sexuality on the big screen.

editorial nymphomaniac poster

**All spoilers are clearly cordoned off – but they do exist**

Most of the criticism surrounding Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” series focuses on the grotesque and joyless quality of his sex-drenched films. However, the gruesome and empty escapades of the protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are precisely what make these films utterly groundbreaking and essential to discourse on sexuality in popular culture.

Joe is a self-described Nymphomaniac, and both volumes of the film chronicle her journey from a young girl into the battered middle-aged woman narrating the story. In a cavernous, damp alleyway, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a pasty old man, discovers Joe crumpled on the ground, bleeding. The entirety of the two films take place in Seligman’s bedroom where Joe recounts her life to him, and the two bounce off their dramatically different perspectives on the nature of Joe’s affliction.

A whole other article can be written dissecting the acting abilities (or lack there of…cough cough Shia LaBeouf) of some of the stars and the at times contrived filming quality, but I will neglect these elements for the time being. Although it should be noted that newcomer Stacy Martin delivers an amazing performance as young Joe, and it should go without saying that Charlotte Gainsbourg is a tremendously talented and diverse actor who is always a pleasure to watch. Yet, even with some of the technical and thematic shortcomings of “Nymphomaniac”, these films are critical to film history and very important to shattering harmful sexual stereotypes about women.

And here’s why: the sex in “Nymphomaniac” isn’t pretty, isn’t romantic, and really isn’t sexy. For the most part, the sex in the film does not serve the male gaze. In any other film that you could probably ever think of, any time a woman expresses her sexuality, she can never do so without being portrayed as a sex object. Also, sex scenes in almost every film never really look or feel like real life and give us unrealistic expectations as to what “love-making” is all about. In “Nymphomaniac” there is no soft lighting, no airbrushing, no baby-making music. The sex is raw and real and sometimes very sad. Asses and boobs are not perfectly shaped, many of the men are not so hunky, and Joe is (almost) never portrayed as a sex object for the audience’s consumption. Her sexuality exists for her and her alone – what she looks like, what she smells like, how she performs are never concerns for her or for you. She wants to get off, and that’s it. No one and nothing can dominate her.

editorial nymphomaniac train

Porn stars and prosthetics are used in order to show all the explicit penetration in the movies. Even though genitals and orgasms abound, most of the sex in the film is kind of boring and mechanical. Loneliness is perhaps the most profound emotion to come through Joe’s narration of her exploits, not excitement or sensuality. Von Trier admits to us that sex hardly ever lives up to the glorified fantasies more easily sold in pop culture. Even though Joe is consumed by her sexuality and participates in some pretty fantastic acts to satiate her appetite, they are always presented very matter-of-fact, never overly romanticized. This allows Joe to just be a woman having a lot of sex, not a whore or a slut or any of those other judgmental terms that get dished out when sex is given too much importance.

(Next page is filled with spoilers, so skip ahead to page 3 if you haven’t finished both films yet.)