Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. 1
PLOT: After finding a woman beaten, bruised and lying in the street, an older gentleman helps her to his home. Finally safe from an unknown assailant, she convinces him to not call for the police. Instead she tells the stranger of her long and complicated sexual history. And this is only volume one.
In the new film from the provocative filmmaker Lars von Trier, an older man and a younger woman discuss her “sinful” life. He and the audience learn how the beautiful - yet recently bruised and battered - Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) at a very young age found that her world revolved around sexual pleasure. As a teenager she and her friend played a game to see who can f*ck the most men on the train – for which they don’t buy their own ticket. The winner of this game gets a bag of candy. For the young Joe (a ferociously open performance from Stacy Martin) it seems to simply be about fueling her insatiable appetite for pleasure. She goes through a series of men – at one point represented by a montage of flaccid penises - and a self-serving Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) with whom she continues to cross paths with years down the road. Seligman (the terrific Stellan Skarsgård) listens intently to the young woman tell her tales, occasionally interrupting to compare her life to fly-fishing or another strange non-sequitur.
The first part of this sexually explicit feature film – shot as one four hour plus movie but released in two parts – could have been a stage play. Aside from the collection of flashbacks and memories, this is a conversation between two people. With each recollection we find more and more about Joe’s history while she never really seems to truly grow. The way she discusses her personal details is completely detached as if she is tediously reading a very graphic women’s magazine. Seligman takes it all in, all the while attempting to convince her that she is not a sinner or something evil. It is a strangely provocative series of debates that oftentimes makes for awkward transitions. At one point he is making a point about something when she replies making a strange connection to being a nymphomaniac. Yet the uncomfortable nature of her stories is occasionally absorbing.
As the nymphomaniac in question, Gainsbourg gives a very cold and emotionally detached performance. This is not to say that it doesn’t work, in fact her choices are sometimes even more fascinating because of it. The way she describes her own body and her experiences she has had is disconnected from those around her. The way she views her desire – or affliction depending on how you look at it – is more clinical than erotic. As young Joe, Ms. Martin shows more diversity as her exploits lead her to a number of strange and challenging experiences. She is fearless, yet when asked by her lover’s wife – a hilarious turn from Uma Thurman – she reacts coldly as we would expect given her older self. Skarsgård however offers a little more depth to his kind-hearted father figure looking to help – I’ve yet to see volume 2 so hopefully calling him a “father figure” isn’t too creepy.
As far as the rest of the cast one surprisingly good turn is Christian Slater as Joe’s father. He gives a very sympathetic performance as the one caring soul in his daughter’s life. One sequence finds him lying in the hospital with a heartbroken Joe at his side. This chapter observes the dysfunctional family dynamic with Joe’s mother (Connie Nielson) offering no support or care. It is one of the few truly emotional moments throughout. As mentioned, Uma Thurman is hysterically funny as Mrs. H., a woman who brings her children to witness their father’s deception as well as the woman who destroyed their lives. As humorous as it may be there is an undercurrent of sadness in this poor, pathetic woman who has lost her mind thanks to her adulterous husband. Then of course there is LaBeouf. It would be easy to tear him apart as his “accent” is hit or miss (mostly miss), yet he does a decent job as a sleazy suitor and obsession for Joe. It is not a perfect performance at all, but credit must be given to his fearlessness as well.
The question is what is the difference between Lars von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC and a porno? Well you could say that this film has a plot, yet the plot is just as thin as something you’d watch lubed up and ready to go. What makes the film - which features oral sex, ejaculation and full on non-simulated sex – rise above that is it’s not meant to titillate. In fact, it is so clinical that even when young Joe orally pleasures a man on the train (complete with his climax) it never quite escalates to eroticism. With its wordy narrative and mix of humor and emotional horror it is simply a deconstruction of a woman who for better or worse, is cursed with her uncontrollable needs. This is not made to excite as her life is hardly romanticized in any way, shape or form. If you are looking to get off, you are venturing into the wrong territory with the first part of this analysis.
For me Lars von Trier is a fascinating, if not always satisfying filmmaker. This is no exception. Throughout the two hour running time I found myself compelled, repulsed, bored and frustrated. It’s impossible to imagine the necessity of a second part yet I will undoubtedly need to see it. While not quite as disturbing as ANTICHRIST nor as captivating as MELANCHOLIA, this sexually charged feature is a strange and yes, pretentious film that is ultimately worth investing in for fans of the director. The final few frames are surprisingly satisfying, yet I can’t help but wonder how this story could sustain another two hours. Risky and abstractedly enlightening, NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 1 manages to create an intriguing discussion of sex and desire while never quite rising to some of the von Trier’s previous work. Is it worth sitting through a second half? It may not be but once you are in, it might be hard to resist.