Nymphomaniac: Volume I is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as told by her. One night she is found beaten and left in an alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), He takes her into his home and as he tends to her wounds, she recounts her life story to him. A life story that’s rather eventful, beginning as a child raised by her father (Christian Slater) up to her very loose and promiscuous time as a young-adult (Stacy Martin).
To those that aren’t familiar with Lars von Trier’s work, he’s one of the most polarizing – if not the most polarizing – filmmaker working today. “Just okay” are never two words I hear when referring to any of the films he has done in the past. His art house style films are known for being slow-paced and are easily the highest test of patience a moviegoer can experience, even more so than Terrence Malick.
They’re also incredibly engaging. This film is no exception.
The third part of von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” – following Antichrist and Melancholia – Nymphomaniac: Volume I is by no means an easy film to watch. Some will understandably be turned off by the graphic nature of the story. Although, this film is clearly, as the title more than suggests, is about sex, there is absolutely nothing sexy about this film in any way; In fact, it’s quite the contrary.
At the center of this story is Joe, played wonderfully by both von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin. Although Gainsbourg gets top-billing, most of the film revolves around Martin as Joe, with Gainsbourg narrating what has happened. For being a newcomer, Martin takes on quite a challenging and revealing role that makes for one engrossing character study. You at first think, okay maybe it’s daddy issues, but then, through flashbacks, we come to find she had a very loving relationship with her father. It’s really about control and power, and to be honest, not even so much those two aspects as it is more the sensation (as she herself states) that she gets from it. Gainsbourg perfectly captures what results after all these years. Sex was never about love for Joe, it was about lust, and that in turn has left her feeling empty and alone. Overall, von Trier never glorifies or judges Joe’s actions. The one who appears to be the harshest on Joe is Joe herself.
Surrounding Gainsbourg and Martin is an equally strong supporting cast. Stellan Skarsgard shares most of the screen time with Gainsbourg as the rescuer who listens to her tale. He provides insight that will probably be the best and only fly fishing parallel to sex. It almost takes on a satirical National Geographic special the way Skarsgard fits it in. Whether that was von Trier’s intention or not, it works. Christian Slater gives the best performance I’ve seen from him in a long time in an underplayed role as Joe’s father. Shia LaBeouf – taking time off from acting like an idiot with a paper bag over his head – is solid, despite the awkward British accent, as Joe’s first “conquest”, who coincidentally keeps showing up in Joe’s life later on. I’d normally call the filmmakers out for such contrivance, but Skarsgard’s character also brings up the absurdity of his random appearances.
Oh, and if there were an Oscar category for Best Awkwardly Funny Guilt Trip, Uma Thurman would be a lock. Like Slater, it seems like ages ago that I’ve seen her in a worthwhile performance. As the wife of a husband cheating on her with Joe, Thurman takes what little screen time she has and hits it out of the park in ways that are funny, awkward and clearly heartbreaking altogether. “Come, boys, let’s go look at the whoring bed!”, she says oddly upbeat to her kids that she brought when confronting her husband.
Sex is one of many tools that two people in love can use to express their love for one another, yet here it’s depicted with sadness. One of the cardinal rules in the club Joe co-founded was that it doesn’t allow members to sleep with the same guy twice. God forbid emotional attachment gets in the way. Joe’s not looking for love. She just wants the sensation, and she goes out of her way at times to avoid any attachment that may come calling, which in turn shows just how powerful the emotional component to sex can be.
Even though I’m recommending this, I’m still slapping a big, all-caps disclaimer that states “BE PREPARED!!”. To those that know Lars von Trier’s work, you already have an idea of what you’re getting into. To those that don’t, you might find this appalling. If you’re up for the ride (pardon the pun), though, you might find yourself surprised. There’s plenty of sex, but there’s never an ounce of eroticism to it. It’s not so much about sex as it is the highs and lows that come with human nature. It’s not von Trier’s best work, and a part of me wishes he just went for broke and released this as one 4 hour long film (which he wanted to) since the ending here is rather abrupt. That said, it does foreshadow darker events to come in Volume II next month. While not the best film I’ve seen this year, like all things von Trier, it will be one of the most memorable.
I give Nymphomaniac: Volume I an A- (★★★½).