Synopsis: Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 is the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who is discovered badly beaten in an alley by an older bachelor, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who takes her into his home. As he tends to her wounds, she recounts the erotic story of her adolescence and young-adulthood (portrayed in flashback by newcomer Stacy Martin). Volume I also stars Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen and Udo Kier.
eyelights: its performances. its narrative structure. its naughty bits.
eyesores: its self-indulgent length. its open-ended finale.
“I’ve always loved the chills at the start of a fever.”
The word alone is loaded with all sorts of pejorative connotations. It begins by suggesting a woman who is, as they say, “easy”: a solicited sex partner one can use and dispose of. It can mean someone who is obsessed with sex; someone who has no control over their impulses. It can mean someone who has deep serious problems with sex, who is oversexed.
Whatever “oversexed” can possibly mean.
Interestingly, like “slut”, “nympho” is nearly always used in reference to women. Men who have a tremendous amount of sex are just men, right? That’s what men do – whereas women are expected to be more reserved sexually. So a woman who is more sexually liberal will inevitably be labelled in ways that men aren’t. Even in this day and age.
Lars Von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac’, which was released in two parts in 2014, does the exact same thing, focusing on a female protagonist who, from a very early age, has an increasingly active sex life. Its key difference is that Von Trier is on a mission: to deconstruct sexual mores in order to show that abundant sexuality is neither moral or immoral.
Through a dialogue between Joe, a woman wracked with guilt over her sexuality, and Seligman, an older man who finds her passed out in an alley, Von Trier takes us on a journey from her childhood to early adulthood, exploring what led her to this point. Seligman is the voice of Von Trier, dismissing Joe’s guilt by expressing his views on human morality.
As the picture goes back and forth between the present and the past, through five significant chapters in Joe’s life, Von Trier/Seligman tells his audience that sexual expression is simply part of nature. From the onset, he makes parallels with fishing, with the tools and strategies used to catch one’s prey, even naming a chapter after fishing books.
Interestingly, Seligman admits to not being a particularly good fisherman, which in turn mildly discredits his commentary. Does he really know what he’s talking about? And, by extension, does this mean that his moral stances should also be questioned? Is it at all possible that Von Trier’s apparent liberal manifesto is anything but?
After all, though Joe and her best friend Bea first start out challenging each other in sexual games, they have a falling out when Bea eventually comes to the conclusion that “the secret ingredient to sex is love” – even though it was her idea for them be sexually empowered in the first place. Perhaps ‘Nymphomaniac’ isn’t a feminist film after all.
After all, look at what befalls Joe as she continues down that path.
Perhaps the film’s message isn’t about female sexual liberation at all, but about its trappings instead: Joe considers herself a “bad human being” even though she claims to feel no shame. She is a sexual being devoid of feeling, using sex in lieu of emotion, much like some people partake in emotional eating. She obsesses for the sake of comfort.
Meanwhile, she “can’t feel anything”.
Even as she tells her lover to “fill all (her) holes”.
The picture is particularly notorious for its sexually-explicit nature – especially given its grocery list of recognizable actors. Most didn’t actually perform in sex scenes but, those that did, simulated the sex with props or were digitally blended with real sex performers to give the illusion that the actors were in fact having sex on screen.
You wouldn’t know the difference. The sex acts are so well choreographed and edited that you’d think that the actors were really up close and personal with their costars. And it’s fairly graphic sex, too, as much as one might initially expect from a young woman developing her sexuality. One can only imagine what Von Trier has in store for Joe later.
The performances are solid across the board, anchored as they are by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård as the older Joe and Seligman. Stacy Martin plays the younger Joe and she’s good, though not stellar; she’s eclipsed by Christian Slater as her father, and Uma Thurman, who was just stunning as the jilted wife of one of Joe’s lovers.
The picture is extremely well-constructed, from the camera work, to its use of inserted imagery to convey its message, to the aforementioned digitally-edited sex. Despite its self-indulgent length (though it was released as a two-hour film in cinemas, it was always intended to be two-and-a-half hours long), Von Trier carefully crafted his story.
While two and half hours is certainly daunting, where the picture really trips up is in its attention to detail, with such things as Christian Slater’s voice being poorly overdubbed or the litter of anachronisms strewn along the way (the picture isn’t dated, but it suggests largely taking place in the early-to-mid ’70s). It breaks the illusion of reality.
There’s also the notable absence of bi and gay sex in it. For a picture that purports to discuss sexual freedom, morality and feminism, it very much locks Joe in a heterosexual mode. This seems out of character, especially since she has a more scientific mind; you’d think that she’d be exploring across the board simply out of intellectual curiosity.
And there’s the ending, which leaves the audience hanging. Having said this, the picture was originally supposed to be one five-hour film and Von Trier broke it into two parts to make it more accessible, so it’s not surprising. But it’s unfortunate, because it could have been possible to make the picture end in such a way that it stands on its own.
In its current form, it demands that its audience return for another two-and-a-half hours.
It’s quite the expectation.
Still, all told, the extended director’s cut of ‘Nymphomaniac, vol. 1’ is an excellent motion picture. It’s extremely demanding of its audience, but it proves entertaining and satisfying from both an intellectual and visceral perspective. It’s probably just not the kind of film that invites itself to repeat viewings, even by its greatest fans.
No matter how obsessed.
But I must admit to some curiosity in seeing how Joe’s story will unfold, to see how her journey took her to that alleyway, left unconscious and bruised. I also wonder if the second part will take a different tack or merely clarify the themes and meaning of the first. Either way, knowing Von Trier, it’s going to be an unforgettable experience.
For good or bad.
Date of viewing: March 4, 2017