Of course you know that von Trier is a celebrated director, but you didn't quite get around to seeing his masterpiece Dogville, did you? Nor, I suspect, have you seen his quirky 2007 cinema, The Boss of It All. In fact, the only reason you are even remotely interested in "Nymphomaniac" is that it depicts venery in an explicit manner. Confess! It's all true, isn't it?
Wait! Keep reading! Don't go away! It's OK! I know you're not like that, because you have standards. You would never watch or read porn. That's so . . . so . . . so >degrading< and low-class. But since you're a mature adult, very open minded and not bound by the strictures of organized religion, you have no objection to serious cinema with erotic content, do you? I mean, as long as it's tastefully done?
I'm here to assure you that "Nymphomaniac" is >not< pornography, because none of the actresses (or actors, mustn't be sexist here) have had any breast augmentation, nor do they wear cosmetics in the manner of slatternly women. For that matter, rest secure in the knowledge that absolutely nothing arousing occurs during any of the movie. No pleasure whatsoever, so it's safe. Your dog could watch it and not begin to look at you funny.
That's why von Trier is, without question, an absolute genius. Sex is one of the few natural pleasures we enjoy here in this vale of tears, and just as the finest minds of industry have ruined the joys of victualry and turned the simple act of eating into a problem, the brilliance of of von Trier is that he has ruined sex. "Joe," the protagonist of the movie, has sex frequently, but she doesn't enjoy it at all, and von Trier does his best to make certain that you don't either.
If you think about it, that's not such an easy feat. Suppose that you were given a camera, a crew and a group of attractive actors who don't mind nudity and simulating sex acts and were told to make a movie depicting venery, it would be difficult for you to make something completely unpleasant to watch. But von Trier has accomplished something you could never do: in this movie, no one has any pleasure. ex is presented as something perverse and unpleasant. "Joe" only engages in it because she's emotionally disturbed, or because her domineering girlfriend made her do it, or because of some Freudian mumbo- jumbo, and she obviously dislikes each experience, starting with the first brief penetration that hurts her.
>SPOILER ALERT!< Don't fall for the brief scenes near the end, of her actually enjoying her three lovers. Those are fantasies she tells in response to having Bach played for her. The music of J. S. Bach is the sublime representation of empyreal purity, and Bach fathered twenty children, so it's good, clean, church-sanctioned, procreative sex, not the naughty fun kind. (Ooo, look! He's bathing her! How lovely! How clean! How innocuous! What movie is this?) But as soon as the music stops, she announces, while in union, "I feel nothing."
The hypothetical sex movie you would write and direct would be unlikely to have acting that is as bland, tedious and affectless as the acting in "Nymphomaniac," but that's the way Lars von Trier wants it, because viewing good acting would be a pleasure to watch, and he wants to drain anything enjoyable out. I can imagine him shouting direction, "No! No! Make it even more lifeless! More monotonous!"
An obvious exception to this is the salient performance by Uma Thurman, but in that scene, the fine actress is introduced for the sole purpose of making a deliberately unpleasant situation even more disturbing. It goes on for an excruciatingly long time, because von Trier wants to rub your nose in the message: sex ruins lives and makes people miserable. The scene is comedic, but only in the way slapstick is.
Von Trier is not the first director to make a movie depicting sex as repulsive. The late Ken Russell also wrote and directed movies with that effect. Like this movie, Russell's movies were also promoted by ads and posters featuring an enticing shot of a woman in ecstasy, but that was just to lure you in. The movie itself taught you a lesson of rue. It is, after all, the glorious puritanical heritage of those of us of Northern European descent. We're not like those filthy people down there in the tropical climes, going at it like they was rabbits. Shame, shame, double shame on their gratification and pleasure! No wonder God punishes them!
All the enthusiastic reviews here are written under the pretense that there is some profound message embedded in this movie (especially the bedpan scene). The profound message is that sex must be presented strictly in terms of social isolation and as a manifestation of emotional disturbance. "Joe," represents all the repressed feelings of guilt and shame metastasizing deep within you. After all, if sex were depicted in a uniformly joyous light, you'd have to go to some sleazy site where they'd rip-off your credit card information.