NYMPHOMANIAC: Vol. I. Intriguing in some way

No von Trier film was advertised in such a complex, thoughtful and expansive way, and given that the main driving force of the campaign was sex, Nymphomaniac must have captured the minds of moviegoers...

Filip Jalowski

29 June 2023

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There is nothing more frustrating than a black vertical line flashing at the beginning of a page.

Unfortunately, sometimes it happens that it is impossible to start writing. Then you have to make friends with these few annoying pixels, and perhaps familiarization will allow you to overcome Word’s impotence. Writing about this state of affairs is one way. Unlocks and allows you to move on. In the case of Nymphomaniac by Lars von Trier, I had no choice but to use this option. However, this is not a bad thing – during these long dozens of minutes I could think about the latest Dane’s film. The picture is unique in terms of his filmography, not because of the content or the level of film craftsmanship, but because of the promotional campaign that preceded its premiere.

Many people rubbed their hands and couldn’t wait for another “beautiful end of the world”, others would like to knock on the Dane’s door, grab him by the ear and drag him to the square where a pile of all copies of his films has already been piled up. I wonder if dropping the match on the faces of the gathered would have the same grimaces as on the posters promoting the story of Joe?

nymphomaniac poster

But what is Nymphomaniac? Did the Dane actually sell pornography wrapped in art cinema? Is it only about controversy and emotional rape of the viewer, because there is a common claim that Lars von Trier has nothing else in mind? What about all those duplicate vaginas and penises, Shia LaBeouf buttocks and masturbation with geometric instruments? Studio cinema or RedTube?


The first part of Nymphomaniac is divided into five chapters – The Compleat Angler, Jerôme, Mrs. H, Delirium, Learning to play the organ. Thus, we are dealing with a narrative typical of the Dane’s cinema. It is also no coincidence that the relationships that arise between the individual parts of the story are the most significant. In the case of Nymphomaniac, the principle governing the construction of the film is something that we can conventionally call symmetry. Joe’s world, torn by emotions and lusts, unfolds in front of us in a surprisingly orderly way. The director acts very consciously.

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In The Compleat Angler, a battered Joe is found by Seligman, who takes her home and looks after her. In exchange for kindness, the woman begins to tell her story. Despite the fact that it starts quite eloquently, with the statement “I discovered cunt at the age of two”, Seligman is not disgusted. Contrary to expectations, he also does not reveal any sexual intentions. Joe’s story genuinely interests him. During the conversation, her sexual conquests are likened to fly fishing, hence the title of the chapter. The Compleat Angler is a classic work on this activity.

Jerôme is Joe’s first sexual partner, smeared with the grease of Shia LeBeouf’s bike. That first time, however unsuccessful it may be, always remains special and, unlike many short-distance adventures, will probably never fade from memory. While in relation to many men, Joe feels absolutely nothing, with Jerôm she shares an emotional bond that seems impossible to break.

nymphomaniac shia lebouf

In Mrs. H Joe has to deal with Uma Thurman, the wife of one of her lovers, driven to the verge of a nervous breakdown. Everything is watched by three little boys who do not realize what happened between their mom and dad.

Shot in black and white, Delirium is dedicated to Joe’s sick father. The only man, aside from Jerôm, for whom he has feelings more lasting than an orgasm. A chapter full of emotions, sadness and death.

Finally, Learning to play the organ. More of Joe’s sexual conquests and more of Seligman’s cultural comparisons. This time, The Compleat Angler is replaced by one of Bach’s religious cantatas, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ. It turns out that the specificity of the heroine’s trysts reveals surprisingly many similarities to the construction of a musical work based, as Seligman claims, on the mathematical Fibonacci sequence.

nymphomaniac uma thurman screaming

The art of fly fishing based on strict rules, the restrictive structure of a Bach cantata, references to Fibonacci – it is not difficult to see that, wandering around cultural connotations, von Trier tries to introduce an element of order and harmony to the film. This desire is evident in the structure of the chapters quoted above. When we arrange them in terms of themes and the structure of the stories they cover, we notice that the first part of Nymphomaniac is written in accordance with the rules of symmetry. The Compleat Angler corresponds with Learning to play the organ – in both, Joe’s sexual conquests are inscribed in the scheme taken by Seligman from texts of culture that inspired him. Jerôme connects Delirium with the motif of a male-female relationship more lasting and more serious than a single sexual intercourse. Mrs. H thus becomes the axis of symmetry.

Another means by which the director inscribes Joe’s world into something resembling geometric frames is the constant dialectic of different orders. The clash of opposites takes place both at the level of the story being told and at the level of the construction of the film.

nymphomaniac charlotte gainsbourg and stellan skarsgard

For Joe’s world, the conflict of permanence and impermanence turns out to be fundamental. The former manifests itself in sincere love for her father and the ambiguous relationship that connects her with Jerôme. Impermanence or transience is measured by successive relationships with men who disappear forever as soon as the door closes. Anyway, this disappearing after one intercourse is the main rule of the club that Joe and her friends founded – only sex, no love. Interestingly, as Seligman notes, the club’s anthem quite accidentally becomes the Triton, also known as the Devil’s Chord. In early church music, it was forbidden to use it, because it was believed that such sound dissonance could only come from the hand of the devil.

And here are more opposites. Triton stands opposite the religious Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ. Rammstein’s music also clearly contrasts with Bach, although after reading the text of Führe mich, the antagonism is not so clear. The opposite of love is sex understood only as the satisfaction of the drive. The characters of Joe’s successive partners contrast with each other. At opposite poles are the individual chapters of the story. In the end, the film’s bleak subject matter and quite literal sex scenes are offset by Lars von Trier’s humor.


Despite the fact that during the screening you can smile at least a dozen times, and at times it seems that the whole film is just a big and slightly heavy joke by the director, in fact the situation is a bit different. The Dane puts on a mask for the first time in his career. This time he hides behind the face of an intelligent joker. Another thing is that when no one is watching, this joker pours himself a glass of vodka and cries at the kitchen table.

nymphomaniac naked charlotte gainsbourg with two naked black guys

The first part of Nymphomaniac is not cinematic pornography or a gloomy joke. As could be predicted, the promotional campaign turned out to be more controversial than the film itself, which in the context of literally showing sex does not break any boundaries. The close-up scene between Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos from Life of Adele does it much more effectively. Instead, Lars von Trier once again tells us his favorite story – about suffering, love, loneliness and a desperate search for contact with another human being.

The silent hero of this story is Freud, who, writing Culture as a source of suffering, stated that love is a feeling built on contradictions. On the one hand, it is able to eclipse all suffering. A loved man is a happy man. Another thing is that when we love, we become defenseless, because we run the risk of losing love and the suffering that comes with it, the greatest suffering of all. Joe does not want to suffer, hence the escape into sexuality with no strings attached and trying to constitute this state of affairs by creating secret groups and surrounding himself with people who try to live in a similar way. However, the heroine subconsciously realizes that all this is false. In the back of her mind, the words spoken by her best friend (also a nymphomaniac) in the first chapter of the story – “the secret of good sex is love” hangs around in the back of her mind. When, in the finale of chapter five, during intercourse with Jerôme, Joe screams in horror, “I don’t feel anything,” B’s wisdom takes on a special meaning.


The geometry of Trier’s world only seems to emphasize the complexity of the trap in which the main character found herself. This is the geometry of a classic maze. Joe bounces off its walls. On the one hand, she would like to leave it, on the other, she is afraid that it may be even worse outside.

Bach’s Ich ruf z dir, Herr Jesu Christ was accompanied by the reading of a passage from the Letter to the Romans (Chapter 8:18-23): “For I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is about to be revealed in us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that it too will be set free from its slavery to corruption and share in the freedom and glory of the children of God. For we know that all creation has been groaning and groaning in the pains of childbirth until now. But not only it, but we ourselves, who already have the first gifts of the Spirit, and we also groan with our whole being, waiting for the redemption of our body.” It resembles the bell tolling in the sky in the ending of Breaking the Waves. Irony or something more?


I would be lying if I said that Nymphomaniac is not an intriguing film in some way. In Dane’s cinema, I have always been inspired by tracking down the paths the director takes. The first part of his latest film invites you to start another journey. However, it’s hard not to get the impression that the philosophical depth of Joe’s story, all this existentialism, the search for love and permanence in a world focused on short-term pleasures, all the fear of suffering and escape “to bed”, is in fact intellectual shallowness.

nymphomaniac shia lebouf in the office

At times it seems that Trier went back to the times of the Heart of Gold Trilogy and deprived it of what made it unique – a very conscious game with the viewer’s emotions. In Nymphomaniac, the director only gently provokes. Given that the intellectual depth of the film is a big question mark, a gentle provocation is not enough. What is missing is a decisive, courageous move towards reflection on Joe’s situation (and thus the situation of each of us, because the heroine is only a metaphor here) or an uncompromising game with the viewer. Watching the first part of the Dane’s film, you sometimes get the impression that he is having the best time with himself. Maybe the second part will complete the work?