Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Lars von Trier is no stranger to the making of controversial films, and his latest picture, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I," may be the most sexually explicit work of his career so far.
While the film is rife with graphic depictions of penetration, fellatio and cunnilingus, they’re never meant to provoke titillation, and the characters’ provocative ideologies about sex turn out to be much more shocking than the sequences that vividly depict it. This is what differentiates "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1" from pornography, and ultimately what allows it to develop into a salaciously compelling character study -- one that’s as darkly funny as it is hauntingly poignant.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, von Trier’s latest muse (who also starred in his two previous films, "Antichrist" and "Melancholia"), stars as Joe, a self-loathing sex addict who, in the opening scene, is found lying in the middle of the road on a cold winter night; unconscious, bleeding and heavily bruised. After an empathetic bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård, another von Trier regular), takes Joe into his home and proceeds to nurse her back to health, she begins to tell him her life story, dating all the way back to when she was a girl discovering her increasingly ravenous sense of promiscuity.
In flashbacks, Young Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin, who uses her domineering sensuality to "use and manipulate others for [her] own satisfaction," as Gainsbourg states in one scene of the film. Wielding her sexual prowess like a weapon, Joe initially takes pride in her ability to control men through physical intimacy, but her irrepressible appetite for it causes her to spiral downward into severe states of loneliness and despair.
Like any of Lars von Trier’s films, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" is not easy to sit through. It’s an uncompromising piece of work that intends to rattle viewers through its unflinching depictions of human sexuality, as well as the characters’ bleak philosophies in regards to it.
What makes the film so vigorously entertaining, though, is that von Trier supplies an underlying sense of self-awareness, as if he’s reveling in his common tropes that many have criticized as being narcissistic and pretentious, while simultaneously poking fun at himself for his own notorious style. He’s drawing attention to the fact that the picture is so over-the-top that it borders on pure camp. Yet, for all of its pitch-black humor, the characters never seem anything other than genuine, allowing us to laugh at them while never betraying their emotional sincerity for the sake of cheap gags.
For example, Seligman consistently interrupts Joe’s story to provide his own hypothetical interpretation of her actions, making allegories to fly-fishing, Illuminati conspiracy theories, and famous works of literature. He authentically attempts to comprehend the reasoning behind Joe’s sexual escapades, but his methodical approach is meticulously constructed to the point that it seems as if von Trier is making a satirical commentary on how scholars and critics attempt to seek out the meaning of his films. It works as an allegorical form of logic for the character, but -- intentionally or not -- also as a hilariously reflexive self-parody.
One of the film’s strongest scenes consists of Young Joe being confronted by the wife of a man she just slept with (Mrs. H, played with fearless energy by Uma Thurman). Not only does she practically invite herself into Young Joe’s apartment, she brings her three small children into the residence as well, inappropriately exposing them to their father’s act of adultery in an impulsive and self-loathing manner. This segment is so absurdly uncomfortable that von Trier invites us to laugh at the amoral nature of his characters’ actions from all angles, but never lets the viewer forget that the pain they experience is, for them, devastatingly real. It’s a tricky balance of dark comedy and pathos, but von Trier handles it in such a way that regardless of how hard the audience may chuckle at the characters’ outlandish interactions with one another, they are still worthy of the viewer’s empathy.
In his television review for David Cronenberg’s highly underrated film "Crash" (1997), Roger Ebert stated that the director was "trying to make a pornographic film without pornography." The same could be said for Lars von Trier and "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1." Despite the abundant amount of naked flesh, and even some shots of actual penetration, the movie is mostly tasked with examining what drives Joe to become sexually compulsive, as opposed to voyeuristically exploiting her character (along with the actresses who portray her) in order to provoke a sleazy form of stimulation.
That being said, "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" is only the first half of a four-hour long film, so perhaps what’s depicted in "Volume II" will make me reconsider these evaluations. It’s challenging to critique the first half of a movie without being able to analyze how the story wraps up, as well as whether the picture works better (or worse) as an uncut, four-hour film, but even if the second installment of von Trier’s magnum opus nullifies the strengths of "Volume I," it works surprisingly well as a stand-alone effort. In fact, as eager as I am to see "Volume II", it felt necessary to take a breath and digest what’s been rendered so far, since the film can at times be a challenging, even psychologically exhausting, film to endure.
While that may seem like a criticism, I actually factor that in as one of the main strengths of the picture; we could use more films these days that provoke audiences to think, feel and reflect on controversial subject matter that is considered too taboo to bring up in mainstream forms of narrative. It’s a contributing aspect as to what defines film as an art form, and while "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" is certainly going to be an acquired taste for moviegoers and cinephiles, it’s kind of brilliant in its own ambitiously twisted way. Equally as important: It’s entertaining as hell, in a way that only Lars von Trier would be able to pull off with such salacious material.