Lars Von Trier is a filmmaker who is very easy to admire and just as easy to despise, and it’s pretty apparent that he wants it that way. Few directors are quite as divisive – he gets five-star reviews and one-star reviews right across the board, and seems to possess a certain self-awareness about this, in that his films appear to be deliberately terrible in places, as if to pointedly contrast with the moments of genius. What same director could so unashamedly pluck the heartstrings with something as devastating as Dancer in the Dark, only to follow it up with the coldly analytical, but brilliant arthouse experiment that is Dogville?

With his latest, he embraces this duality even more than ever before. The first part of his five-hour opus has moments of exquisite subtlety and tact followed by trashy exploitation, moments of brutal realism coupled with with utterly implausible developments, and the occasional profound statement is placed next to corny nonsense. It’s a film that bravely tackles the mental and physical complexities of sex with a grown-up and serious eye, but is constantly eager to crack a dirty joke whenever it feels like it. At least in these respects, it is utterly unique – and whatever you think of Von Trier, he does have that going for him, which is a rarity in modern independent cinema.

Charges of misogyny have never really left Von Trier. Frustratingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s never quite confirmed he deserves them either. He seems more likely to be a cross-gender misanthrope, and while he certainly has a preference for depicting women on the receiving end of suffering, you could argue that he’s just giving female characters the increased screentime many keep wishing for (no doubt he’s aware of this dubious get-out clause as well). At least with this film, his male characters are certainly portrayed less sympathetically, which sort of gets him off the hook again. I suppose.

Given that this is essentially only half a film, it’s hard to draw complete conclusions about how successful it is. There are potentially interesting developments, such as just how reliable our narrator is, which the second half will possibly elaborate on. Or possibly not. Either way, I’ve not really seen a film – or the first part of a film – quite like this before. Which is great. And weirdly irritating.

NYMPHOMANIAC: VOL I
Kind of brilliant filmmaking, in many ways10
Kind of awful filmmaking, in many ways1
A rare, honest, adult examination of sex9
Being infuriating is obviously annoying, but also sort of a great reaction for a filmmaker to get8
One can never quite shake the feeling that being misogynistic, even under a cloak of art, is still being misogynistic5
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • Feels weird, but I think it passes
7Overall Score

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