Mark Reviews Movies

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lars von Trier

Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 3/21/14 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 21, 2014

The latest provocation from writer/director Lars von Trier is the coming-of-age story of a young woman who is addicted to sex, and it features plenty of graphic sex scenes, debates about morality, and a few deconstructions of the art of fly fishing. If that last thing doesn't appear to belong in Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, then it will come as quite a surprise that the stuff about fly fishing provides some of the most intriguing portions of the film.

It's not the specifics of fly fishing that matter; it's what the discussion of the sport represents for how von Trier tells this story. On the surface, the film, which—as the title suggests—is the first half of a complete story, is little more than a memoir of a character's life of compulsory debauchery.

The character is a middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who starts the film unconscious in an alleyway—just out of sight of any casual passersby—as the sounds of dripping gutters and rumbling trains gradually shift into a piece of heavy metal music on the soundtrack. Von Trier's camera in this opening scene acts like a detective investigating a crime scene, slowly piecing together the details, until finally resting on Joe's hand and cutting to a long shot of the location. We have no idea how she got here, and no sooner have we started trying to hypothesize about the picture before us than the camera is sneaking through the crooked entry to alley—away from this eerie scene and to another, more normal one.

Here is an ordinary apartment—cramped and somewhat disheveled. It is the home of an older man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). Perhaps he is no ordinary man but an honest-to-goodness gentleman, for, when he spots Joe lying on the ground on his way home from grocery shopping next door, he goes to her with no other intention but to help the poor woman. She refuses an ambulance but accepts Seligman's offer of tea. It's an act of kindness that we suspect von Trier will not allow to go unpunished or leave unqualified, but for the time being, it's something.

Alone, the two begin to talk, and von Trier's screenplay doesn't rush them. These are two strangers, trying to figure out what the other's aim is and determining if there's a conversation to be had beyond the usual getting-to-know-you spiel. There's a rhythm to their talk, and soon enough, they both decide that, yes, Joe's story is one worth telling and hearing. She apologizes—not for the bawdy details of what's to come but for the purpose, which she says is "moral, I'm afraid."

Joe begins her episodic narrative through the chapters of her life (literally, with titles that reflect something that pops into her head upon introducing the next part), from her childhood—when she and her best friend writhe on the bathroom floor until they felt something "down there," with her mother (Connie Nielsen) knowing whatever Joe is doing is "wrong" and her father (Christian Slater) wishing his wife would stop judging their daughter—through young adulthood (Stacy Martin plays the younger version of Joe). Von Trier makes no attempt in these early chapters to explain or psychoanalyze Joe's compulsion for sexual pleasure, and neither—and more importantly—does he look upon Joe in judgment. Just as in the opening scene, the director acts as an objective but keen observer.

That's where the fly fishing comes into play. It's Seligman's obsession, and he can't help himself but to inject his knowledge into Joe's story. When she discusses how, as a teenager, she and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) spent a night on a train competing to see who could have sex with more men for a bag of candy, Seligman notes that her way of choosing possible targets is nearly identical to catching a fish (Von Trier provides animated diagrams to bolster Seligman's point).

Seligman simultaneously serves as a seeming stand-in for von Trier and as a complementary second narrator for Joe's story. We're seeing two versions of one story here: Joe's and hers through Seligman's worldview. His purpose in the narrative is to keep Joe's darker, self-loathing thoughts at bay. Neither of these characters is religious, and Seligman is befuddled that Joe rejects religion except for sin—the one element that ensures she will see herself in a negative light.

It happens in her telling of the story aboard the train—how wrong she was to use men, including one who repeatedly denies the temptation, for her own gain. Seligman simply counters that he found the episode to be "entertaining." When she later chides herself for lying to a group of men about being her first sexual experience, he laughs it off. She gave them all a good memory. He notes the existence of Fibonacci numbers throughout her anecdotes, perhaps trying to convince her there is something natural, if not beautiful, about them.

It's no different, really, than what von Trier does in the telling. Take an account that Joe believes solidifies her position as a wicked person. In this one, she winds up in the middle of a collapsing marriage.  The husband (Hugo Speer) has left his family (after failing to pick up on her attempts to end their tryst), and his wife (Uma Thurman) arrives at Joe's apartment with their three sons in tow. As much as Joe insists upon the terrible thing she has done, von Trier plays the scene as an awkward comedy, with Thurman's character running an absurd guilt trip on everyone involved.

Each time we think we have a handle on where von Trier is going with this material and the way in which he will present it, he throws us off-kilter. A romanticized version of a deathbed scene quite suddenly turns into a more realistic and dreadful depiction. In the middle of watching yet another coincidental encounter with Joe's sexual constant Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), Seligman yells about the inherent improbability of their relationship. An entire period of her life is summarized with a photo montage of male genitalia. Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is superficially a button-pusher (Few taboos are left untouched, and the preview for next half during the credits suggests it will go for the remaining ones), but that's just the sensationalistic part. The other is an insightful, open-ended examination of how we react to having those buttons pushed.

Note: The second volume of this two-part film is scheduled to be released in theaters two weeks after the release of the first. It makes one long for the days of the intermission.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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