“Which way do you think you’ll get the most out of my story—believing me or not believing me?” asks the central character in writer-director Lars von Trier’s new film. She’s an emotionally broken, physically beaten sex addict recounting her life less ordinary to an ascetic bachelor with a passion for fly-fishing, but the words might as well be from the filmmaker himself. In Nymphomaniac: Volume I, he’s inviting viewers to come along on a lurid trip, to submit to a survey of longing (emotional as much as sexual) threaded with intellectual riffs big and small, and allusions to dozens of other works.
Despite almost three decades of work in the feature realm as a provocateur of the highest order, von Trier has somehow avoided having his surname turned into an adjective, unlike a number of fellow outlier auteurs. But most of his films have achieved a unique synthesis of the philosophical and confrontational, the clinical and compassionate. In this regard, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is no different. A rigorous and riveting cogitation on sexual liberation, gender double standards, love, sociopathy and any number of the filmmaker’s other obsessions, it’s a personal work that touches upon universal themes and ideas in a way that is inescapably … von Trier-ian?
Nymphomaniac: Volume I centers on a self-diagnosed sex addict found barely conscious in an alley. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is pitiable and possessing of low self-esteem (“It’s my fault, I’m just a bad human being”), but Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) takes her back to his modest apartment and tends to her wounds. In an effort to convince him of her self-destructiveness and wickedness, she begins to recount stories of her adolescence.
Joe (played by newcomer Stacy Martin in flashbacks) doesn’t have much use for her bitch mother (Connie Nielsen), but adores her father (Christian Slater), whose hospital death figures prominently in the fourth of the film’s five chapters, a black-and-white segment (the rest of the movie is in color) that plumbs the shame of sexual response in the face of loss. Other segments detail a contest of sexual conquest Joe engages in with a schoolmate (Sophie Kennedy Clark) while traveling by train; a disgraced wife and mother, Mrs. H (Uma Thurman), whose husband leaves her for Joe, despite the latter’s lack of interest; Joe’s continued dalliances with the rough-hewn Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf); as well as other encounters in a vast catalogue of rapacious acting out.
As with almost all of von Trier’s films, Nymphomaniac: Volume I is basically on a narrative level a fabrication, a construct—a cinematic experiment wrapped almost incidentally around a story that will sustain the theories it wants to explore and the arguments it wants to make. In his most recent films, Antichrist and Melancholia, there’s plenty of depressive self-flagellation.
That’s hardwired to Nymphomaniac: Volume I, obviously, but the movie is also quite funny. Von Trier’s sense of humor has always been underrated and mistaken, in large part because his instincts for willful provocation sometimes get the better of him (cough cough Hitler comments cough cough). But he has a terrific drollness, and it’s an unlikely and pleasant surprise that it factors so prominently in this film.
In one scene, Joe explains devising a simple dice game to more economically deal with her many suitors. Later, Seligman shares his theory that the world can be divided into two groups of people—those who cut their left fingernails first, and those who cut their right fingernails first. The highlight, though, is a bravura sequence in which a humiliated Mrs. H brings her three young sons over to meet her husband’s mistress and see their “whoring bed.” The scene swells to ripe melodrama, just about to burst, before pirouetting and touching down, remarkably, in a place of genuine feeling. In blending the farcical and tragic, von Trier seems to make a case for the folly of over-intellectualizing libidinal impulse, and thinking one could ever tame or escape biological appetites.
If you’ve been scanning this review specifically just for tidbits about the hardcore sex scenes (brought to fruition with body doubles and convincing special effects), or the montage of roughly two dozen flaccid penises meant to represent some of Joe’s conquests, my mentioning of it here, this many paragraphs in, should indicate how integral it is to Nymphomaniac: Volume I. Its sex is “everything,” yes—the fulcrum on which the movie turns. But the film’s graphic sequences are only shocking, really, insofar as how well they abut and serve the more discrete stories Joe tells, and how those in turn fit in with Joe and Seligman’s post-analysis of same, as well as digressive exchanges about everything from angling and Edgar Allan Poe to classical music and cake forks. It may not yet be clear if Joe is a completely reliable narrator (Nymphomaniac: Volume II opens theatrically in two weeks, and hits VOD this weekend), but believing in and succumbing to her engrossing stories for the time being feels like the best course of action.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annual and ShockYa, among many other outlets. A former three-term president and current member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Simon can be followed on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Udo Kier
Release Date: Mar. 21, 2014