You know what I value most about Lars von Trier? The fear of not being able to anticipate his next move. His films know no bounds. They don’t constrain themselves with formal ratings, standard run times, or star status demands. When word spread that von Trier’s next film was a four hour epic about one woman’s lifelong struggle with nymphomania, it seemed tailored-made for the von Trier canon. But how far would it go? These ingenious character posters helped shed light on the film’s intentions, but when you open yourself up to the world of Lars von Trier, it’s impossible to accurately assume where you’ll end up.
The film opens on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lays bruised and battered in a dark alley. She is soon discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) who offers her shelter at his nearby home. Moments later, at Seligman’s intrigued request, Joe begins telling her life story, guiding Seligman through her existence as a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac. And right away, von Trier attempts narrative choices that should come off as stale, but in his hands, are anything but.
Most all von Trier films are broken into distinct chapters, but rarely do his characters announce the title of the chapter and offer a description of what the audience is about to see. It’s such an obvious, self-reflexive dig that von Trier is clearly having fun with. He isn’t afraid to remind the audience that they are indeed watching a movie. Another risky narrative choice is Seligman’s frequent interruptions. I always feel it is best for a flashback to stay in flashback until it is finished. Continually jumping to the present puts a film’s flow at risk. But von Trier has something to offer. In fact, he might be the only living director who can relate sex to fly fishing and the Fibonacci sequence in such a compelling manner. Believe me, I know this sounds bizarre. But it’s also rather fascinating. The Seligman character is an incredibly well-read man, fiercely intelligent and always able to offer profound insight. I loved every word of Joe and Seligman’s conversation, as loosely connected as some of the metaphors were, they were engaging all the same.
Back to the story. Joe was raised in an ostensibly mundane household. She had a loving father (Christian Slater), a “cold bitch” for a mother (Connie Nielsen), and a rebellious best friend who encouraged sexual discovery. For the flashbacks in Vol. I, Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin, who is the true star of the film. As young Joe, Martin delivers a fearless performance of a sexually liberated, but utterly tortured young soul. Honestly, the film wouldn’t really work without Martin’s conviction. It’s one of the most committed performances ever featured in a Lars von Trier film.
Every other actor is on point as well. Stellan Skarsgård actually plays a decent man for a change, while LaBeouf defies the expectations set by his outlandish off screen behavior and actually delivers a fine performance as Joe’s first love. Uma Thurman has a devastating, enraged one scene wonder of a role, and Charlotte Gainsbourg manages to find the perfect balance of indifference and shame, all while confined to the comfort of a small bed.
Some of you are surely going to detest this film. Others will love it, be appalled, frustrated, unmoved by it. To define a von Trier film is to define the meaning of polarizing art. Such is his way. I haven’t liked all of von Trier’s films, but I have yet to see a dull one. There’s an acute audacity to his filmmaking – a fuck it all mentality – that I’m utterly drawn to. Many will argue what purpose (if any) Nymphomaniac serves, of which I can offer no real insight. Like all von Trier films, I found Nymphomaniac: Vol. I to be a bold, mostly worthy experiment. It isn’t as accomplished as some of his other features (it lacks the emotional depth of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, the fury of Antichrist, and the complex beauty of Melancholia) but you can bet I’ll be waiting eagerly for the moment I can rent Vol. II on demand. Will it be any good? Who the hell knows. But isn’t that the point? B+