NYMPHOMANIAC: VOLUME I
*** (out of 5)
March 21, 2014
Charlotte Gainsbourg as JOE
Stellan Skarsgård as SELIGMAN
Stacy Martin as YOUNG JO
Shia LaBeouf as JEROME
Christian Slater as JOE’S FATHER
Uma Thurman as MRS. H
Sophie Kennedy Clark as B
Directed by: Lars von Trier
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
After months of tension and build-up, Lars von Trier’s new film “Nymphomaniac” final has its release. Well, at least part of it, anyway.
The first volume of the controversial film drops on VOD and in limited release on March 21 with the second half following it two weeks later. The first volume of the film turns out to be both exactly what you’d expect and something unexpected simultaneously.
The film focuses on a mysterious woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whom a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) finds injured in an alleyway. When Seligman takes her home, she confesses to him that she is a horrible person. Seligman presses her to find out why she believes this, and Joe spins a tale of her life, starting at a young age when she discovered that she was a nymphomaniac.
Joe’s story is a mosaic of sexual experiences, which is how she measures her life. From losing her virginity to a neighborhood boy to having sex with random strangers on a train in order to win a bet, Joe uses sex as a distraction and a power play, all with the end result of denying herself the human emotion of love. Of course, there’s more to the story, as Joe searches for something stable in life, but that is left to the upcoming counterpart “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2.”
It’s clear that von Trier picked the subject matter explicitly for its titillating quality and buzzworthy concept. Having pushed the envelope in the past with films like “Antichrist” and causing a PR stir with Nazi-sympathetic comments during the promotion of “Melancholia,” von Trier is no stranger to controversy. In fact, one can make the case that he and his films thrive on it.
With the name of the film and the explicit trailer circulating, one might be tempted into thinking this would be an exploitation film or what amounts to relatively tame yet still graphic pornography. If you think that way, you need to watch more pornography because there’s a lot more going on here. At the same time, watching this movie for the sex is like buying a Playboy magazine to look at naked pictures. You’d be wasting your money as far more graphic and arousing content can be found in numerous places.
In this sense, “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” uses sex the way the character of Joe does. It’s not really there for pleasure, and it’s not there to derive the same emotions and feelings that a “normal” person has. Instead, it’s an excuse for activity. It’s the film’s way of being daring and to get people’s attention.
At its heart is a story of a wounded woman with deep psychological problems, and sex only presents itself as a symptom rather than the disease itself. This keeps things open for a potential resolution (or ultimate destruction) in the second half. My hope is that the payoff isn’t premature.
By juxtaposing frank discussions of sex with how it can serve as a metaphor for mundane subjects with graphic scenes of sexuality designed to make the audience uncomfortable and possibly aroused, von Trier walks the line between art-house intellectualism and art-house voyeurism.
The film, like much of von Trier’s work, can get very talky at times, and it does have an air of self importance that goes a bit too far. At the same time, many of the scenes that might have been considered shocking don’t play out that way, which could be the result of the availability of shocking sexual content. Had “Nymphomaniac” been made prior to the days of internet pornography, it might be more notorious.
The film gets a bit too big for its britches at times, but some strong performances and an intense portrayal of the young Joe by Stacy Martin helps make up for the flaccid performance of not-famous-anymore Shia LaBeouf and a bizarrely accented Christian Slater. Either way, “Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1” is a good start, which makes me interested in seeing the second half.