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Strange and perplexing is the way that Lars Von Trier’s new film Nymphomaniac is being released in Australia.

Nymphomaniac is the life story of Joe, the titular female played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is found beaten and bruised in a back alley and taken in by the gentle academic, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). There, laying in bed recovering, she tells Seligman the story of how she came to be a nymphomaniac. It begins with her discovering her genitals at an early age, then moves through losing her virginity, sleeping with tons of guys, falling in love and seeking out more and more dangerous ways of experience and expression, and moves through light and dark the whole way, at times extremely funny and at others intensely disturbing.

Clocking in at four hours long, it has been divided into two films, Volume I and Volume II, but they are being played as a double-feature rather than separately. Though there is a nice climactic moment to round off the first volume, it is merely the mid-point of the whole story. Only the credits really divide the film into two, just before a ten minute interval.

Joe tells her tale with remorse and self-loathing, and Seligman makes connections and is able to give insight. The banter and friendship that springs up between the two is the glue that keeps the sections of Joe’s journey together. They have great chemistry, and Seligman’s digressions are sometimes intriguing and sometimes ridiculous, or at times both and often funny.

Early on Seligman compares a lot of Joe’s sexual adventures to fly fishing, and continues this line of thought for quite a while, before moving on to connections with religion and iconography. As the story progresses, we also learn a lot about Seligman and  why he is such an appropriate listener—and at times judge—of Joe’s story.

Coming in and out of Joe’s past are many familiar faces. Shia LaBeouf does a half-way decent job as Jerome, the young man who took Joe’s virginity and continually keeps appearing coincidentally in her life, even if his English accent seems a little generic at times. Same goes for Christian Slater, who plays Joe’s father.

Stand outs of the ensemble are Uma Thurman, playing the hysterical wife of a man Joe is seeing, and Jamie Bell as a mysterious but alluring sadist. The two leads, Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, give excellent performances. Gainsbourg is distant, her eyes seem too full of the past to ever really focus on anything, and Skargard’s fatherly gentleness is balanced nicely with his at times childish enthusiasm. It must be said that some of the sex scenes in the film are pornographic, but this didn’t feel out of place in Nymphomaniac as it did in Von Trier’s Antichrist. They just served to tell Joe’s story.

For such a long film, Nympho really goes the distance. It never settles into a form because it always finds somewhere new to go. The final chapter is a little unexpected at first, but it works if only to justify where it goes and what it says about dominance. The film offers no real hope, and ends heartbreakingly. Fitting that it is the end of Von Trier’s ‘Trilogy of Depression’.

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