Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (2013) / Drama
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably NC-17 for graphic nudity, pervasive sexual content, some violence and strong language
Running Time: 118 min.
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen
Small role: Udo Kier, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe
Director: Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Review published March 17, 2014
Provocative Danish auteur Lars von Trier (Melancholia, Dogville) writes and directs this psycho-sexual odyssey about a woman who lives for her sexuality, in a story is released in two volumes. The American cut of this first part of his film excises about 30 minutes, but still is quite potent in its depictions of sexual acts and dialogue.
Charlotte Gainsbourg (My Wife is an Actress, Love Etc.) stars as Joe, a woman who has been savagely beaten and rescued from a deserted alley by an older man named Seligman (Skarsgard, Thor: The Dark World) who listens intently to her life story as she mends her wounds in his apartment. Revealing herself to be a nymphomaniac, many of her accounts have to do with her struggles with her sexuality, as well as her seemingly boundless promiscuity, and how her attitudes have changed within exploring it over the years.
I think that, in some way, the titillation factor may be enough for some viewers to think that what an exploration this side of The Devil in Miss Jones is venturing into all-new territory. But, removing the explicitness of the sex scenes, perhaps those same people would find it very boring. Most of the film is told through a series of flashbacks, many featuring first-time screen actress Stacy Martin playing a younger version of Joe and carrying the brunt of the film's explicit sexuality, from her first inklings of sexual feelings as a young child up through her mid twenties. Each segment is told as if a chapter of a book, with each chapter utilizing different themes (for instance, chapter one compares Joe's nymphomania with the pastime of fly fishing) and distinct stylistic flourishes (ex., one uses black-and-white photography).
While each segment has its own set of interesting developments and observations, the film doesn't get too bogged down in any one area in which things get boring. However, if there is an issue with the film, it's from Von Trier's forced dialogue, which often encroaches into the realm of overbearing in how he must contort conversations in order to try to coerce its thematic implications. For instance, one scene has Joe spy a book Seligman has been reading, to which the older man begins to talk about its author, Edgar Allen Poe (Joe claims never to heard of him), and then goes into a very lengthy description of how he died from delirium tremens, followed by a lengthy description of what that is. Who talks like this? Only someone in a Lars von Trier movie. Of course, this is followed by a chapter entitled, "Delirium", in which the withdrawal symptoms of Joe's sex life correlates to the detailed description of how it affects alcoholics when they try to deny themselves of their habit cold turkey.
Its clinical, non-judgmental portrayal of a self-loathing, emotionally empty woman gives the coital action a decidedly un-sexy vibe (though those who find clinical depictions of sexual promiscuity will still find them titillating), and though some of it is quite explicit, the film doesn't quite delve into the realm where one might consider it merely a tepid porno.
The acting is spotty, as some of the actors struggle with Von Trier's borderline-bizarro dialogue more than others, especially a miscast Christian Slater (Bullet to the Head, Bobby), whose accent is a bit out of sorts (though not as odd as the affectation by Shia LaBeouf (Transformers 2, 3), mostly just used to make thematically convenient comments about trees. Some of it may just have to do with the weirdness of the characters themselves, with perhaps no bigger weirdo than Seligman himself, who rapturously listens to Joe's story with a fascination, and words of enabling encouragement, that encroaches into creepiness.
Stacy Martin should get some kudos for going all in with her explicit sex scenes, bearing the brunt of the film's lascivious allure, even if her acting in other scenes involves lots of staring blankly at anyone talking to her. Uma Thurman (The Accidental Husband, The Life Before Her Eyes) does get to command the film for a spell in the one scene she is in, as the spurned but dignified wife who decides to show her three boys their father's misdeeds that have torn their family apart (one of the few cases in which the film's stoic, amoral tone dissipates for a bit). If you don't find Joe loathsome after her indifference to how little she cares that her actions have consequences, you never will.
However, while the film fails to delve beyond a superficial look at a woman's desire for perpetual sex, it's just so odd that it becomes fascinating just to see what strange ideas come up from scene to scene. The fly fishing analogy is a bizarre intro into this world, and it is pretty clunky (and perhaps a bit wearisome) the way it develops, but, thankfully, it doesn't extend beyond the first chapter, so it isn't too overbearing to the entire film. Also in the mix is Bach music, cake forks, Fibonacci numbers, and the science of parallel parking, including accompanying illustrative diagrams, a la Wes Anderson. It's for these odd little tidbits thrown in that Nymphomaniac can keep the interest level high for the intellectuals and pseudo-nerds (like me), even when the rest of the film's interest doesn't stem beyond just a few tawdry sex scenes.
As we're only getting half of what was intended as a five-hour opus, Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 may feel like an incomplete story (which it is), but it does end on a note that does give a bit of nuance to the rest such that it doesn't leave one hanging. The end credits do feature clips of scenes that can be found in Vol. 2, which, if you prefer to go into it with a clean slate, may be the time you'll want to check out so as to avoid potential spoilers. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is that kind of movie where you can't help but wish you didn't know people like these exist in the world, and yet it appeals to that curious part of you that makes you want to hear just a little more. Thus, Vol. 2.
©2014 Vince Leo