Viewer discretion not advised…if you’re a mature adult.
Let’s get this out of the way — Lars von Trier makes films that are explicit, controversial, and sad as f-ck! Some consider them pornographic, others call them gratuitous, while others call them brilliant works of art. All opinions are right because Lars von Trier’s films, above all else, invite endless interpretations, conflicting opinions, and discussions. His newest film, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I, the first part of a 4+ hour film divided into two volumes, is actually the third and final part of the “Depression Trilogy”, which includes von Trier’s prior efforts Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011). These three films aren’t connected in the traditional sense of trilogies, that is to say, by story. Rather, they are tonally and thematically intertwined, each one separately exploring the worlds of sex, depression, and the multiple forms of human tragedy. Hooray! ...right? As you can imagine, these films don’t lend themselves to much mainstream appeal. In my humble critic’s opinion, they should. Well, maybe not Antichrist. But Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is a fascinating and well-rounded exploration of sexuality, identity, eroticism, youthful angst, and self-reflection, as told through a traditional biopic film structure, that invites personal introspection and a yearning to discuss these topics with others.
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a mysterious bloodied and bruised woman found in an alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), a righteous and seemingly pious man who tends to her weakened state and injuries. While recovering, Joe recounts her tales of sexual experiences and erotic indiscretions as proof of her sinful nature. We are treated to a generally chronological story of her upbringing, focusing on a young Joe’s (Stacy Martin) close connection to her caring father (Christian Slater), her evolving relationship with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), and her debaucherous exploits with best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and a constant flow of men. Seligman, acutely listening to each and every detail, tries consoling Joe and relates her stories on sex, partnerships and human behavior to his vast knowledge of fly fishing, classical music, and more. The analogies, though forced and far-fetched, are very interesting to ponder.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is divided into five chapters, each representing a new phase of Joe’s sexual awakening. Stacy Martin does amazing work as young Joe, having as much if not more screen time than Gainsbourg in this first installment. Noticeably thin, wide-eyed, and quietly observant, Martin (a newcomer to film acting) convincingly conveys a sense of displacement with her full body performance. Gainsbourg, a go-to female lead for Lars von Trier, is well utilized for her ability to instill a sense of sultriness to her sad dialogue. LaBeouf is acceptable as Jerôme, but he deserves credit for his fearless approach to the physical openness of his character. Honestly, I’m really not a fan of Mr. LaBeouf and still have trouble believing him as anything but an annoying teenage bad actor. To see him play an adult of this kind is weird, but I’ll admit that it’s a good step forward for the young man. The most memorable performance in Volume I, however, is Uma Thurman’s nerve-racking turn as the wife of a man who is leaving her for Joe. In only the handful of minutes that she’s present, Thurman completes a full character arc with amazing strength and vulnerability. Her performance will stick with you for a long time.
(I should point out quickly that Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is very much half of a movie. Those waiting for Vol. II to be released in order to watch them both together will miss out on the full effect that this ending emits. It may not have been initially intended, but I found that the abrupt ending to Vol. I plays well into the arc of Joe’s character. Plus, at least you wouldn’t have to wait a year or multiple years — instead, wait just a few weeks.)
If you’ve seen Antichrist, you are aware of how explicit von Trier can be. Nymphomaniac contains even more sex and nudity, which could explain why it’s not rated by the MPAA. But no matter how gratuitous the sex, the unflinching nature of the film serves a purpose. Sex can be, and often is, a strong emotional exchange. The more we see, the more we are privileged to experience the physical and emotional exchange between characters who are sometimes at odds with themselves throughout the interplay. The film is often playful and funny too. Well, isn’t sex sometimes the same? Nymphomaniac seems to be trying to capture the full spectrum of feelings that sex can possibly elicit.
Now I’m not about to get into an argument about what sex should and shouldn’t mean to everyone, nor will I point out what parts of the film most connected to my own experiences. Admittedly, there were some moments that triggered memories of my own experiences or thought processes as I matured, but those specifics are my own damn business! <<stern face>> My point is that it’s likely the film will remind you of some events in your own life, but since Nymphomaniac chooses to be an ‘open book’ for us to ‘read’, we shouldn’t shy away. If audiences feel the film is too inappropriate to see, then that just plays into the film’s commentary on social acceptance. And just because the film is almost entirely told from a female’s perspective, albeit an obsessive one, this doesn’t mean the film shouldn’t relate to everyone. We’re all adults (at least those of us allowed to see it) and we can learn a little something from Joe’s transgressions. And hey, if you don’t learn anything, at least Nymphomaniac: Vol. I’s search for meaning in all places can spark a good conversation…or a desire to go fly fishing.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I is now playing in select Bay Area theaters.