by Katie Zavadski and Jessie Roberts
The smut in question involves Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman who’s found lying beaten and bruised in an alleyway by nearby resident Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Taken back to his apartment where she gets into bed, she recounts, over the course of both volumes, the erotic adventures of her life: her early days trawling train cars with her friend looking to see who can screw the most men (the prize: a bag of chocolates); her recurring encounters with Jerome ([Shia] LaBeouf), the man to whom she lost her virginity; her juggling numerous lovers a night; and her eventual frigidness and subsequent career as a criminal debt collector. Joe is a self-professed nymphomaniac, and her story is of alternately embracing and struggling against her “dirty, filthy lust.”
Will Leitch praises von Trier as “a beautiful lunatic”:
The movie is ostensibly a look at a lifelong nymphomaniac (played by Gainsbourg as an adult and newcomer Stacy Martin as a younger woman) telling the story of her life and her addiction to an academic named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who finds her in the street. That’s not what it’s really about, though: It’s about von Trier, as always, exorcising his personal demons in plain view, in the most over-the-top, lunatic ways as possible. If you take a step back from it and realize that von Trier is essentially filming sex shows with Hollywood actors and having them do horrible things to each other and occasionally showing two-minute montages of flaccid penises, and he’s doing all this to let us know he feels lonely a lot and wonders if maybe he’s a bad person … it’s sort of the most insane thing in the world. Fortunately: He’s so, so good at it. Von Trier is an idiot, but, you know, the genius kind.
David Denby finds the film best when it’s “bookish and artificial”:
Von Trier links his hungry woman to philosophical ideas, mathematics, digressions of all sorts. Sex, it turns out, is meaningless without interpretation. The character has only one way of experiencing her life; the director has many ways of telling it. He gives us a catalogue of male members belonging to Joe’s lovers, and, in medical-textbook mode, drawings and photographs of female genitalia. However profane, “Nymphomaniac” is a modern variant of illustrated seventeenth-century books of miscellaneous erudition, like “Angler” or Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” and of such eighteenth-century libertine texts as the Marquis d’Argens’s “Thérèse Philosophe”—a volume in which the sexual “education” of the heroine gets interrupted by discourses on the truth of philosophical materialism and the falsity of religion.
But Eric Sasson isn’t impressed:
I suspect that von Trier, like many of his European counterparts, views American sexual mores as fairly puritanical. And yet there’s something awfully retrograde about a film which offers us a nymphomaniac only to have a man defend her. For all the talk of Nymphomaniac being a “shocking” film from a “radical” director, von Trier’s depictions of a woman incapable of enjoying sex and despising her sexuality are fairly conventional. A truly novel film would star a sexually adventurous woman, not devoid of love and compensating for her lack of it, not hating herself, but instead embracing her sexuality and feeling content with her decisions.
Lindy West isn’t sold either:
I’m not wholly certain that woman-as-sexually-compulsive-cypher is a thought experiment new enough or true enough to bother undertaking. I didn’t hate it and I didn’t love it and I wasn’t scandalized in the ways I expected (this much explicit sex becomes mundane—by design, I expect); Nymphomaniac just feels like a slightly tedious and under-justified art film. Like American Apparel Ad: The Movie—long on the male gaze and short on female humanity; long on self-importance and short on meaning.
Andrew O’Hehir is split:
I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece or a failure; it’s a thrilling, uproarious visual and intellectual journey that doesn’t always connect and surely will not please every viewer, but along the way breaks free of all established notions about what a respectable movie is and how it’s supposed to behave. Von Trier sometimes writes awkward lines of dialogue for Joe, where she speaks all too obviously for his political or philosophical views. He also creates episodes of brilliant verbal repartee, ludicrous slapstick comedy and piercing emotional power, often overlapping. Arguably “Nymphomaniac” has way too much sex, but isn’t that the point? The most intimate, most transcendent and most liberating of human experiences is also a commodity, an unquenchable cultural obsession and an incurable addiction.