If you’re going to watch Danish filmmaker/provocateur Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Volume 1, thinking that he’s going to go overboard with sexually explicit material and make a shagfest disguised as an art film, you will be dreadfully disappointed. The last word I’d use to describe Nymphomaniac is “erotic,” but the right words to actually explain it are harder to come by. As always, von Trier works in this film — the first half of a four-hour-plus epic — according to his own peculiar vision. But while the film succeeds in some ways it falls short in others – at least until we see whether that is rectified in Volume 2 (the first half is out on VOD now and in theaters March 21, with Volume 2 on VOD March 20 and in theaters April 4).
Nymphomaniac is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman who is found beaten in an alley by the kindly bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Joe goes with Seligman back to his apartment, where he treats her wounds and lets her recover from the attack. As she does, Joe begins to tell Seligman her life story – that from a young age, she has been consumed by lust and has burned through a long line of male sexual partners, leaving the occasional ruined life in her wake. Seligman listens intently, at first reserved than wildly connecting aspects of Joe’s story to trivia and factoids from literature, art, numbers theory and, uh, fly fishing.
Gainsbourg and Skarsgard are both adept at delivering their odd, picaresque dialogue, but much of Nymphomaniac, Volume 1 is devoted to Stacy Martin as Joe in flashbacks. She asks a young man named Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) to take her virginity, which he does on a break from fixing his motorcycle. That’s the jumping-off point for her journey of sexual discovery, but what we discover early on is that sex is a purely physical act for Joe, and that she will stop at nothing for it. What we don’t know is why she is like this – while her mother (Connie Nielsen) was cold and distant, she enjoyed a warm and loving relationship with her father (a surprising Christian Slater) that – so far – does not seem to be hiding the kind of history of sexual abuse at his hands that would be the typical Hollywood motivating factor for Joe’s actions.
She seems to be operating as the same kind of primal force of feminine power that von Trier has introduced into his last two films, Antichrist and Melancholia, while the men in the film – Skarsgard’s Seligman aside, who seems only intellectually aroused – are just animals, helpless to resist her no matter how virtuous they initially seem (and forget the ones who don’t even bother with that). Yet – with the exception of Jerome, who returns to her life later on – it’s all just grist for the mill that is Joe’s enormous sexual appetite.
The question is: to what end? Nymphomaniac Volume 1 is ultimately just a series of vignettes, punctuated by the weirdly comic philosophical discussions between Seligman and the older Joe, which chart the incidents in Joe’s life in dispassionate fashion. It doesn’t help that Martin’s Joe, perhaps intentionally resembling the scores of anonymous young actresses you might see in chintzy ‘70s European porn, is a distant and unfathomable figure, earning neither our compassion nor our antipathy. She may have unchecked sexual cravings but remains a blank otherwise until a sequence near the film’s end with her now hospitalized father.
It is this scene and one just previous to it – in which Joe is confronted by the wife of one of her lovers, three young sons in tow, that finally pack an emotional punch. The wife is played by Uma Thurman in a blistering, show-stealing performance that escalates from polite, calm distaste to unrestrained grief and fury in a moment that feels as real as it does uncomfortable. There is nothing quite as nakedly emotional or visceral in the rest of Nymphomaniac, Volume 1, although that last scene with Joe’s father comes close.
But hey, there’s a montage of photos of penises of all sizes and colors halfway through to jolt you awake just in case you were starting to snooze. And you may be tempted to; while von Trier is always up to more than what it seems with his films, he doesn’t seem as sure about his mission on Nymphomaniac, Volume 1. As I said earlier, it’s far from arousing – the sex is mostly soulless, even ugly – and its little moments of black comedy sit uneasily within its dogged and somewhat dreary narrative. Will the larger theme or context be revealed in Nymphomaniac, Volume 2? We’ll jump back into bed with Joe and her many partners in two weeks and find out.