Film and TV

What Separates Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac from Porn?

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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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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.