What Separates Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac from Porn?

Categories: Film and TV

Magnolia Pictures
Charlotte Gainsbourg portrays Joe in Nymphomaniac: Volume I.

Let's start with the ending: the closing credits disclaimer that insists that none of the lead actors in Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac filmed penetrative sex. If there is real sex in the movie, and it sure looks like there is, it must have been done by one of the eight credited sex doubles, listed far down the crew after the cast, somewhere around the caterers and gaffers. (Humble billing, but oh what luscious names -- my favorite was Elvira Friis.) The sex doubles loaned their loins to Von Trier, who digitally stitched them to his actors. In the era of Google image search, the difference between an XXX freeze frame of an actor having sex versus a perfect simulacrum seems technical at best, though I suppose their parents must be relieved.

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So yes, even though we've been informed in real life that Shia LaBeouf's penis is named Richard Dreyfus, we don't actually see the thing during a scene where he primes himself before taking 15-year-old Joe's (a brave Stacy Martin) vaginal and anal virginity, or later when the camera plants itself between his legs as she rides him like a pony. We're seeing someone else's, lots of someones elses', and if you're not prepared for a minute-long montage of full-frontal flaccid cocks, I suggest you see another film.

Of course, as Nymphomaniac started, none of us in the audience were 100 percent sure we weren't seeing the real deal. We weren't even sure we were seeing Nymphomaniac at all. It was billed only as Film X, a secret screening by "a major director." But when we entered the theater and were confronted by an 18+ only warning and a concessionaire urging us to take shots, we grinned.

We weren't seeing the full, four-hour film. Instead, this was Nymphomaniac Volume I, the first of two parts. (Volume I hits the states on March 21; the second follows in April.) Still, the crowd was so excited to catch a glimpse of Von Trier's latest that when the first image popped up on screen, a woman several rows behind me blurted, "Snow! That's snow!"

What separates Nymphomaniac from porn? A lot. For one, porn tends to be less interested in fly fishing, piano chords, rugalah, fingernail clipping, and Fibonacci, all subjects discussed at length by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård in between the bonking. They spend all of part one in Skarsgard's apartment, where he's taken her to rest and reminisce after discovering her battered in the streets. Gainsbourg, playing the grown-up Joe, is a brutal mess: lip and nose bloodied, eye blackened, legs bruised, and white painful welts throbbing on her jaw. There's no bolder or more brutal way to suggest that this woman has had hands all over her, not that she opens up to this stranger about her injuries.

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