Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (Denmark/Germany/UK, 2013)March 11, 2014
Nymphomaniac Volume I is possibly the best movie Lars von Trier has made since Dancer in the Dark. It doesn’t take much analysis to determine the “why” of this statement - for Nymphomaniac, the iconoclast director has dialed back the pretentiousness in favor of something character-based. Nymphomaniac is still a fantasy - meaning that it doesn’t take place in the “real” world - but the movie seems less like an excuse for stylistic excess than a production with a story to tell. Von Trier’s previous three internationally distributed efforts - Melancholia, Antichrist, and Manderlay - have all fallen victim to von Trier’s artistic self-indulgence. While it would be unfair to state that Nymphomaniac Volume I never falls victim to these problems, their impact on the viewing experience is more that of a transitory distraction than a crippling obstacle.
The full Nymphomaniac has been split into two pieces due to its excessive length. Combined, Volumes I and II total about four hours. An even longer director’s cut exists (and has been exhibited in some venues). According to von Trier, this represents his “true vision,” although he hasn’t gone out of his way to denounce the shorter edit, which will be more widely distributed and seen. In the United States, for example, although Nymphomaniac Volume I will be shown in about two-dozen art house theaters, it is available via VOD.
Nymphomaniac has been called “pornographic” by some, although this isn’t the first time a von Trier film has been thus labeled. There are several brief hardcore shots (made possible by prosthetics and the computer merging of body doubles with actors) but at no time would even the most perverse viewer consider Nymphomaniac titillating. For a movie that features so much naked flesh, it’s surprising how thoroughly un-erotic Nymphomaniac is. If intent is a defining characteristic of pornography, then this could be described as “anti-porn.”
Nymphomaniac Volume I opens with a curious sequence. Initially the screen is black. Against the opaque backdrop, we hear a variety of sounds: water dripping, something mechanical straining to overcome rust, and a metallic drumming. Von Trier then “turns on the lights” and replays the scene with the visual elements in place. It’s an oddly effective way to establish the setting although it’s more of a calling card than a necessary element. Soon thereafter, we’re introduced to the two main characters: Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lies bleeding in the middle of a street, and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who finds her and brings her home.
The majority of Nymphomaniac Volume I comprises flashbacks as Joe relates her life’s story to her benefactor. A self-diagnosed nymphomaniac caught in the grips of deep self-loathing, she talks about her earliest sexual feelings, her relationship with her father (Christian Slater), how she and a friend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) seduced men on a train, how the wife (Uma Thurman) of one of her “victims” confronted her, and how the trajectory of her life criss-crossed with that of her true love, Jerome (Shia LaBeouf). Although the film features its share of graphic content, one could argue that none of the sex scenes are as naked and exacting in their depiction of the human condition as those showing the slow degradation associated with the death of Joe’s father.
Nowhere is von Trier’s influence more apparent than in some of the bizarre thematic tangents he brings into play. To the casual viewer, these may not make much sense, although I’m sure their connections are perfectly obvious to the writer/director. Nevertheless, he finds a way to interweave such odd subjects as fly fishing and Fibonacci numbers with Joe’s tale of lifelong sexual depravity. During these sequences, it’s apparent that von Trier hasn’t completely abandoned pretentiousness.
When one speaks of “courageous acting,” the risks taken by performers in Nymphomaniac come to mind. Stacy Martin (making her feature debut), who plays the younger version of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe, appears stark naked about as often as she is clothed. In a situation like this, it’s easy for the nudity to overwhelm the acting but Martin shows herself to be more than capable during the emotionally wrenching scenes in which she confronts her father’s dissolution. Shia LaBeouf has become a punching bag in some cinematic circles (sometimes deservedly so) but his work here is compelling. This is the actor who garnered universal praise before falling prey to lackluster blockbusters and bad publicity. Christian Slater and Uma Thurman have small parts in which they are far removed from the sex symbol status they once held.
Sometimes with a “Volume I,” it seems unfair to make a judgment without having seen “Volume II.” That’s not the case with Nymphomaniac. Although the movie ends with much of Joe’s story not yet told, the experience doesn’t feel truncated or incomplete. Von Trier, Gainsbourg, and Martin have created a fascinating, well-rounded character in Joe and I’m interested to see the rest of her story. Just as there’s a lot to appreciate about Volume I, there’s much to look forward to in Volume II. For the first time in more than a decade, I’m optimistic about a von Trier project.
Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (Denmark/Germany/UK, 2013)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro