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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review: Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (2014)

Volume 1 & 2: * * * 1/2

Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin

I'm not sure there's any real way to assess the first volume of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac in the absence of its second half. Unlike the Kill Bill movies or Stephen Soderbergh's Che, where one narrative is split into two complete films that are able to stand alone, Nymphomaniac is an unfinished product, so evaluating it would be sort of like evaluating a book after reading to the middle and then stopping mid-sentence, or like evaluating von Trier's Melancholia based only on the "Justine" section. Without the benefit of the second half of the story, I can only say a couple of things for certain: this is von Trier's funniest English language film, Hollywood should stop neglecting the talents of Uma Thurman, and if what Volume 1 seems to be setting up actually pans out in Volume 2 then this may turn out to be a truly excellent film.

The film opens with a striking image, its protagonist Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) laying beaten in an alley, a light rain falling to wash away the snow, a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) almost passing by without noticing her and then coming to her aid. She doesn't want an ambulance and she doesn't want the police; she only wants a cup of tea. Seligman obliges, taking her back to his home so that she can rest and have some tea, and she agrees to tell him her story but warns him that she'll have to tell the whole story and that it will take a long time. He settles in, happy to hear her story (though in one of the film's funnier touches, he keeps interrupting her narrative to tell her how some aspect of what she's saying reminds him of fly fishing), and she begins to tell him about her life and her conviction that she's a terrible person. Her story, divided into several chapters, centers on her sexual life, her self-diagnosis as a nymphomaniac, and her belief that she's used her sexuality as a weapon to harm others, though nothing she says (at least in this half of the film) manages to convince Seligman that she's as bad as she says she is.

The chapters in the early life of Joe (played from teenager through early twenties by Stacy Martin), are told with varying degrees of success. The first chapter, which finds her and her friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) having a contest to see how many men each can seduce in the course of a train trip is fairly ridiculous but probably a good representation of the sort of porno-premised storytelling that one might expect from a movie called Nymphomaniac. More successful are later chapters, including one in which Joe is confronted by the wife (Thurman) of one of her lovers, a sequence of agonizing and dark hilarity in which Thurman marches in and proceeds to own every inch of the screen, and the chapter in which Joe's father (Christian Slater) lays dying in the hospital while Joe has sex with an orderly, trying to generate enough pleasure to replace the despair she feels at losing the only person she really cares about. It's these sequences, where von Trier plays around with form and style, that show that despite the suggestive title and the sexually explicit content, the director is doing more than being provocative simply for the sake of being provocative. Exactly what he's ultimately saying can't really be assessed until the second half of the film comes out, but the fact that he is trying to say something can't be denied.

One of the more interesting things about Nymphomaniac is the interplay between Joe and Seligman and the way that he keeps gently trying to wrest control of the narrative. She keeps talking about her sexual experiences, and he keeps interjecting about fly fishing, not merely shifting the conversation from her interest to his own, but trying to replace a subject over which her experience would make her dominant with a subject over which his knowledge/experience would make him dominant. He also spends a decent amount of time explaining her experiences to her (I hate the term "mansplain" but that seems like the best way to describe portions of their conversation) and towards the end begins telling her that part of her story - in which a man named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) appears, disappears, and seems to keep magically reappearing - is impossible, at least in the way that she's telling it. How this will all work out remains to be seen (it could be a commentary female voice being drowned out by male voice, it could be setting Joe up as an unreliable narrator, it could be both, it could be neither), but the way that von Trier has set the stage for whatever is coming next is intriguing and thought provoking.

The combination of the title Nymphomaniac and the name Lars von Trier may keep a fair number of people away from this one, but despite the amount of nudity and sex in the film I actually found it a bit tamer (though not "tame" by any normal standard) than I'd been expecting - though it may just be that after recently seeing Blue is the Warmest Color and Stranger by the Lake I've become slightly desensitized to explicit sexuality in film. I'm also sure that come the end of 2014, this is a film that people will still be talking about, whether it proves to be a masterpiece or an interesting disaster. Either way, this is assuredly one of the director's most important works.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I think "tame" is a fair assessment, for a different reason. At least once you wade knee deep into erotic, you realize it's all purely symbolic and all the sexual scenarios lose their sexual potency. And to me, that's when I started getting annoyed because it's such a tritely provocative symbol in which to hide your emotional expression. This is a really good review, though.