Nymphomaniac: Volume IReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/21/14 08:33:45
"Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1" is a film that is equal parts sexy, silly, powerful, pretentious, brutally cynical, achingly sincere, gorgeous, grotesque, beautifully acted, impeccably crafted, contrived, controversial and occasionally quite insane, oftentimes veering each one within the confines of the same scene. In other words, it is a Lars von Trier movie through and through. Having shocked and scandalized audiences around the world with such films as "Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark," "Dogville," "Manderlay" and the end-of-the-world epic "Melancholia," he now offers up a new cinematic provocation long enough to require being split into two parts for its general release ("Vol. 2" will be arriving in a couple of weeks) and featuring enough erotic content in just the first half alone to be in the running for the title of the most sexually explicit mainstream film ever made.As the film opens, mild-mannered Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) leaves his apartment building to make a quick run to the store and upon returning, he comes across the beaten and barely conscious body of a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying on the ground amidst the gently falling snow. Although she refuses medical or police attention, she admits that she could go for a spot of tea and Seligman brings her up to his apartment. After getting the stranger cleaned up and put into bed, he asks, not unreasonably, who she is and what happened to her and she tells him that her name is Joe and that she is "just a bad human being." When he scoffs at that, Joe also reveals herself to be a nymphomaniac and offers to recount the misadventure that her to where she is now, an epic saga that, according to her, began "when I discovered my ---- as a two-year-old." From those humble beginnings, Joe (played in her younger years by Stacey Martin) continues to explore her fascination with her sexuality and after losing her virginity at 15, she goes into overdrive. With best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark), she forms an all-girl underground sex club--one with overt Catholic overtones and where the key rule for membership is o never fall in love--and indulges in silly games such as a challenge to see who can have sex with the most strange men during a train trip with a bag of cheap chocolates and bragging rights as the prize.
Although Joe goes through seemingly hundreds of men in just the first half of her saga (many of them represented solely through quick flashes of their genitalia), the one that stands out from the pack is Jerome (Shia LaBeouf. . .yes, Shia LaBeouf). When they first, he is a barely articulate teenaged lunkhead who takes Joe's virginity with somewhat less effort and enthusiasm than he puts into trying to get his motorcycle started. (Significantly, it is Joe that get his motor running, even though he didn't exactly return the favor.) Years later, when Joe applies for and gets an office job that she is not remotely qualified for, she discovers that Jerome, filling in for his absent uncle, will be her boss. Deciding to play games, Joe sets about having sex with every man in the office but Joe in order to drive him to distraction but when she finally decides that enough is enough, it turns out to be too late. A few years and many more men later, while taking a break from the hospital where she has been maintaining a deathbed vigil for her beloved father (Christian Slater. . .yes, Christian Slater), she unexpectedly runs into the now-married Jerome and takes up with him once again.
Throughout Joe's recounting of her story, there are frequent interruptions from Seligman, a man whose aura is overtly asexual, as he excitedly attempts to explain to her that her experiences are not as uncommon and freaky as she thinks, using elements ranging from fly-fishing techniques to Fibonacci numbers. (That said, even he finds Jerome's reappearances in her tale to be less than convincing.) At first, these observations are borderline absurd--imagine a PhD dissertation of a copy of "Penthouse Forum"--but they become more intriguing as things go on and when he compares Joe's need for multiple lovers to his favorite polyphonic organ music, in which each individual tone comes together to form one ideal sound, it becomes genuinely compelling and interesting. Of course, Joe thinks that the entire situation is ridiculous but as things progress, she slowly begins to come out of her shell and we get the sad sense that her encounter with Seligman may be the longest conversation that she has ever had with another person, certainly with any male.
Over the years, I have usually been of two minds when it comes to the works of Lars von Trier. On the one hand, the man is an undeniably skillful filmmaker with an especially deft touch for daring to deal with complex thematic material, creating challenging female roles and getting superlative performances out of the actresses recruited to perform them. On the other hand, he has, more often than not, wasted those gifts by surrounding them with cheap shock techniques, cheaper shots and absurd stylistic decisions (remember that Dogme 95 nonsense) that only serve to distance the audience to such a degree that it is virtually impossible to connect with them on any level--even the better ones like "Dancer in the Dark" and "Melancholia" left viewers feeling as brutalized as his characters and not in a good or interesting way--and films like "Dogville" and the loathsome "Antichrist" were so heavy-handed in their attempts at button-pushing that they bordered of self-parody.
With "Nymphomaniac," von Trier has given viewers a film that is as cinematically daring as his previous efforts but which doesn't try to keep audiences at a distance throughout. Although the subjects that he is dealing with here--issues regarding gender, religion, obsession, cultural attitudes towards female sexuality, authority and pure, unabridged lust--are anything but light and frothy, von Trier finds a way of presenting his intellectually rigorous material in a surprisingly accessible manner that utilizes all the cinematic tricks at his disposal while retaining just enough humanity to keep viewers interested and to prevent it from becoming just another over-intellectualized smut film in the manner of "Shame." Yes, there is a lot of sexual material on display here--ranging from the genuinely erotic to the grimly depressing--has put them in the context of a story that is just as compelling when the actors are out of bed as when they are in it. While the results may come across as a little too pretentious for those simply looking for a movie filled with Good Parts, I found myself more or less mesmerized by it throughout and would put it up there on the same shelf as such masterpieces of the form as the short stories of Anais Nin and "Belle du Jour."
It is also--believe it or not--quite funny throughout. Considering that the last time Lars von Trier was known to attempt a joke in public ended with him getting barred from the Cannes Film Festival as a result thanks to a punchline that found him comparing himself to a Nazi, this may sound especially odd but the fact is that "Nymphomaniac" is frequently hilarious. There is much humor, for example, in Seligman's overly intellectual "explanations" for Joe's behavior (which can easily be read as von Trier's comments on how film critics have attempted to decode his own work over the years) and how far off base they may be despite his learned assertions (especially when it turns out that he really does not know of what he speaks). Even better is the instant classic black comedy sequence in which Joe awaits one lover in her apartment only to be greeted first by another who has just left his wife and family for her and then by the spurned wife (Uma Thurman), who arrives with her kids in tow and politely asks if she can show her brood "the whoring bed." The sequence is a showstopper of the highest order that inspires a lot of laughs--partly from the sheer outrageousness of the situation and partly from the smart writing--while making a strong dramatic point about Joe's callous way of destroying the lives of others.
Thurman's handling of this particular dramatic aria is absolutely stunning--if ever there was a situation in which an actor deserved an Oscar on the strength of a single scene, this is the one--but her performance is hardly the only one of note here. Charlotte Gainsbourg is an undeniably gifted and fearless actress who is more than capable of handling whatever a demanding filmmaker like von Trier has to offer and her work here is absolutely fascinating. As the younger version of her character, newcomer Stacey Martin makes a similarly vivid impression and does a wonderful job of finding the basic humanity that her character strives so hard to keep from view. As the film's relative straight man--the one who has to basically represent the audience while everyone else gets to go wild--Stellan Skarsgard is strong and sure throughout and his extended dialogues with Gainsbourg are absolutely fascinating to behold. The only performance that doesn't really work is the one done by Shia LaBeouf as Jerome--apparently having picked up on von Trier's decision to set his film in "Europe" but not in any specific country, he veers from accent to accent with every scene (and sometimes within them as well) and it just proves to be distracting after a while.Granted, it is hard to make a full critical judgement based upon what is literally only one half of a movie--especially since von Trier is one of those directors who can go off the rails in the blink of and eye--but even this one fragment is more fascinating, complex and flat-out entertaining than most complete narratives that you or I could name. This is a truly audacious and wholly original work and even if "Vol. 2" (which presumably will go into even darker areas than this one) turns out to be only half the film that this one is, the complete saga will almost certainly still go down as one of the key cinematic events of this year and I know that I, for one, cannot wait to see how it all turns out. I also know that if anyone decides that we need another screen version of "A River Runs Through It," I certainly hope someone gives Lars von Trier the gig.
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