By now everyone knows whether writer-director is their cup of tea. There's little middle ground when it comes to the acclaimed (and often controversial) filmmaker, which is always the sign of an artist unafraid to push the envelope. His harshest critics argue he is more interested in pushing buttons than an envelope, but, in most of Trier's work, all the emotional and physical pain is in service of a greater purpose. Whether you enjoy that purpose is another matter. Nymphomaniac: Volume I will please the filmmaker's admirers, while, once again, keep his most vocal critics at a distance. The title alone makes this obvious.
If von Trier is making a movie about a nymphomaniac, it's going to be a real movie about a nymphomaniac, pulling no punches. That's exactly what von Trier has done here, but in an unexpected way. Volume I of this two parter is actually a great deal of fun. Trier's dark sense of humor is firmly in check, with some comical music choices and a hilarious framing device.
We get to know the nymphomaniac, Joe (), through an extended conversation with a stranger, played by , a man who finds Joe unconscious in an alleyway. He brings her back to his place, to help clean her up. He's curious about how Joe ended up in that alleyway all bruised up, but it's a long story, one that spans over four hours in two parts. Skarsgard's character makes a joke -- or we should say von Trier does -- that "long is good," to convince Joe to tell him about her entire journey.
A large portion of this lengthy film is made up of flashbacks to Joe's childhood and teenage years. Her stories are often sparked by items in Seligman's (Skarsgard) guest room, a convenience von Trier pokes fun at. So much in that room leads to some kind of story from Joe. Those stories, of course, are exceptionally explicit. There's a great deal of sex, as expected, and it's hardcore stuff. It's all fitting, though, since the character von Trier is following would remember all about these sexual encounters.
Young Joe is played with real power by Stacy Martin. The actress gives a layered performance, capturing every little detail Old Joe describes. We're told and shown who Joe is by Martin's performance. Both Old Joe and Young Joe feel like the same character. It's exceptional work from the former model.
Volume I is likely the calm before the storm, and that “calm” is already fairly stirring. Not because of the explicit sex, but because of some truly heartbreaking scenes. Joe commits heinous acts, but when she's with her father in the hospital, played with real warmth by , you empathize with her. Trier makes us care about this character, no matter how selfish she acts.
Emotionally Volume I is brutal. Volume 2, based on the preview shown during the end credits, will continue down that road, in addition to the physical pain Joe has been through. The end of the set up leaves us simultaneously excited and fearful for what's to come. One can't really call this a great film since it's an unfinished experience, but it's certainly an experience that, if Volume II is of the same quality, will make for an another unforgettable film from Lars von Trier.