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Review: Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" is thoughtful, provocative, & frustrating
Given that the release strategy for Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac had divided the film in two, leaving us with only a half-finished picture to analyze until Volume II arrives theatrically on April 12th (both halves are already available via VOD services, but I prefer not to view theatrical releases this way), I’m going to keep this one relatively short. More than any other recent film that has employed the multi-part structure – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, The Hobbit, etc., all of which are extremely strange bedfellows to mention alongside a von Trier film – Nymphomaniac is simply one long film carved right down the middle, not even building to any sort of climax or mid-narrative resolution. It simply cuts off once two hours have passed, leaving audiences stranded for several weeks before being able to make any definitive judgments on what the film has to offer. Nymphomaniac needed to be a single four-hour film with an intermission in the middle, not two truncated pictures with a small but frustrating gap in release, and as such, any thoughts I have to offer at this juncture are works in progress. Where von Trier is headed with any of this remains a mystery once the credits abruptly roll on Volume I, though what we have been offered so far is more than enough to pique and maintain my interest.
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As much as von Trier has earned a reputation for being a dangerous and unpredictable filmmaker – and as much as Nymphomaniac has been advertised as the ultimate culmination of his most ‘shocking’ and ‘unrestrained’ qualities – this first volume is a surprisingly quiet, reserved work, and that is precisely what I find most compelling about it. There is some of the promised graphic sex and nudity (though not nearly as much as one might expect), and the film wears its voice and quirks proudly on its sleeves (the aspect ratio changes in one sequence, another employs black-and-white photography, and von Trier is giddily fond of illustrating metaphors through cutaways and on-screen text), but at its heart, Nymphomaniac is about the banality of sex (and, by extension, human existence), and is tonally in keeping with its central themes.
The film opens with a single, middle-aged man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), finding a woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), physically abused and passed out in an alleyway. She denies his offer to call an ambulance, and instead accepts Seligman’s offer to spend the night recovering at his house. From there, the film is essentially an extended dialogue between these two characters, as Seligman tries to understand Joe’s psyche and Joe relates pieces of her life story, framed by her own self-hatred and sex addiction. The film employs extensive flashbacks to illustrate Joe’s story, with newcomer Stacy Martin portraying the younger version of the character, but the film is generally at its best when focusing on the interchange between Joe and Seligman, either in the moment at Seligman’s house, or spoken over the flashback material. The film is more uneven when it devotes itself to extended sequences in the past. Certain stretches, like a scene depicting the long, drawn-out death of Joe’s father, are spectacular – I have never seen the actuality of watching a loved-one die of natural illness depicted with such uncomfortable, unflinching realism on screen – while others, including a largely comedic digression with Uma Thurman as an angry wife whose husband had an affair with Joe, wind up rambling and moving in circles more than they provide any significant insight.
It doesn’t help that while Stacy Martin is completely believable as a younger version of Charlotte Gainsbourg, she lacks the presence that allows Gainsbourg to breathe such vivid, vibrant life into a very stoic, intentionally underwritten character. Martin’s work is largely blank and inscrutable, and while that works to decent effect in montage scenes where Gainsbourg’s narration is the driving force, Martin is less capable of anchoring things when placed at the center of a scene. Again, I don’t want to be too harsh as of yet – Martin’s performance could certainly evolve over the course of Volume II in ways that shed further light on her work here – but as this first half is concerned, the flashbacks are messy, compounded by a monstrously awful performance from Shia LaBeouf as Joe’s primary love interest that threatens to completely undermine an ongoing thematic thread about Joe’s views on the concept of love.
But again, the core of the film is Gainsbourg, Skarsgård, and their characters exchanging stories and ideas of the course of one evening, and when their conversation is at the center of things, Nymphomaniac soars. Never have I seen a film draw long, elaborate comparisons between fly-fishing and sex addiction, or music theory and sex addiction, or the Fibonacci numbers and sex addiction, but Nymphomaniac does so, and as offbeat as many of its philosophical musings may be, none of them feel anything less than fully thought-out and entirely, provocatively convincing. As Seligman explains his own passions to Joe, like fly-fishing and Bach, she draws connections with stories of her nymphomania, and as their conversation continues, each gains a deeper understanding of their individual thoughts and obsessions, while the audience is left to ponder the quiet, unassuming profundity of life’s unexpected interconnectedness.
There is a striking banality to the way Seligman and Joe move back and forth between talking about sex and talking about sports or art or math – between topics society has deemed taboo, and topics so often discussed they belong to the banal – and so far, von Trier’s goal seems not to be about exploring or exposing the extremities of sex, but about contextualizing it as a normal and inseparable part of human experience. Joe’s self-hatred about her nymphomania obviously stems in no small part from the social stigma society places on sexual activity and discussions of sexual activity, and in drawing comparisons between Joe’s actions and arts or sports, Seligman seemingly intends to help her identify the banality, not the destructiveness, in the reality of her addiction (given how Seligman stresses a largely existentialist point of view, where Joe’s actions are neither bad nor good, but simply ‘are,’ it even appears that von Trier has come partially to terms with the animosity towards humanity expressed in Antichrist and Melancholia). It reminds me in part of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, only with the speakers being on much more even intellectual footing; the conversation is the heart of things, with any examples given or stories told existing not for their own sake, but as a means to further the philosophical exchange. On that level, the film is fascinating, and I look forward to where this conversation goes not only because von Trier could absolutely zig where I expect him to zag – any and all thematic analysis I have performed thus far could be wholly invalidated by whatever comes next – but also because Gainsbourg and Skarsgård are working at such an insanely high level that watching them play off one another is a major pleasure in and of itself.
And on the topic of the film’s depiction of sex, I am happy to report that the pre-release hype has, for these two hours at least, been completely overblown. Nymphomaniac is graphic, certainly, but not once is it gratuitous, and von Trier never indulges in the elaborate displays of sexuality Abdellatif Kechiche indulged in with Blue is the Warmest Color. Where that film glamorized and exaggerated its comically elongated sex scenes, filtering it all through the undeniable presence of a firm male gaze, the sex in Nymphomaniac is brief, to the point, ugly, and unadorned. Sex is not a fantasy for von Trier, but a reality of life, one that may or may not seem pleasurable to those performing the act, but which is uniformly unsexy, awkward, and uncomfortable to the viewer. In short, von Trier’s sex is banal, employed not to arouse, but to illustrate, and in this sense, Nymphomaniac is actually, despite its graphic content, one of the more thoughtful and restrained depictions of sex I have seen in film (and before anyone accuses von Trier of perpetuating the male gaze, as someone inevitably will without fully understanding the term, I refer you to the sheer volume of penises on display throughout this first half of the film).
Again, I must stress that this is, at best, a partial opinion, at least until Volume II arrives to further illuminate, or completely nullify, my existing impressions. I cannot say I am completely sold on Nymphomaniac yet – so far, the film lacks the immediate, unshakable brilliance of von Trier’s previous work, Melancholia – but I am, at least, intrigued, and when the second film arrives in April, I look forward to giving the entire two-volume work a more thorough examination.
Nymphomanic Volume I is now playing in limited release. Volume II arrives in limited release on April 12th. Additionally, both films are now available through Video on Demand (VOD) platforms.