Directed by: Lars von Trier.
Written by: Lars von Trier.
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg (Joe), Stellan Skarsgård (Seligman), Stacy Martin (Young Joe), Shia LaBeouf (Jerôme), Christian Slater (Joe's Father), Uma Thurman (Mrs. H), Sophie Kennedy Clark (B), Connie Nielsen (Joe's Mother), Anders Hove (Odin), Jens Albinus (S), Jesper Christensen (Jerôme's Uncle), Hugo Speer (Mr. H), Cyron Melville (A), Nicolas Bro (F), Christian Gade Bjerrum (G).
After the first two hours of Lars von Trier’s epic Nymphomaniac – billed as Volume I – I still have no idea what to make of the film. Unlike Tarantino’s Kill Bill, where even if Volume II had of sucked (which it didn’t), Volume I would have remained a masterpiece of action filmmaking, Nymphomaniac is a far more inscrutable film – one that depending on how what happens Volume II may be one of the year’s best films, or one of the year’s biggest disappointments. Two hours in and ending on a cliffhanger of sorts, all I know for sure is I cannot wait to see Volume II.
The film opens with a strange man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding a beaten and bruised woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in an alley. He invites her back to his place to heal her wounds – and she proceeds to tell him her life story, in episodic fashion. In case you didn’t figure it out from the title of the film, you soon figure out this is going to be a rather sexually explicit story, when Joe’s starts her story with the line “I discovered my cunt at 2 years old”. Von Trier has never exactly been a subtle writer, and the bluntness of his dialogue in Nymphomaniac is rather shocking – but also oddly appropriate. Joe is a damaged woman, who seems to care about nothing and nobody – not even herself. She describes herself as a horrible person – someone who cares only about her own needs and who is willing to do anything to satisfy them – although nothing ever does satisfy them, which is why she keeps on fucking pretty much every man she meets. Hell, in Volume II, she may well end up fucking Seligman, but I doubt it. However strange Joe is, he may be even stranger – going off on tangents about fly fishing, mathematics and music, all the while trying to convince Joe that she really isn’t that bad of a person.
Other than the scenes between Gainsbourg and Skarsgard, the rest of the film is seen in flashback – most of the time with Stacy Martin playing a younger version of Joe. The casting of Martin is impeccable – she looks and sounds uncannily like Gainsbourg, and delivers a terrific performance in the film. While Gainsbourg dispassionately describes her sex life, it’s Martin who has to act them all out – from losing her virginity to a motorcycle riding lunk (Shia LaBeouf) to having a competition with her friend “B” on a long train ride to see who can fuck the most men in the bathroom on the journey, to recounting the way she had to juggle her schedule to fit 5 or 6 or 7 different men in one night. We also flash to scenes earlier in Joe’s life – with her eccentric father (Christian Slater) and her mother – who she describes as a “cold bitch” (Connie Nielsen) – although we barely see her at all (hopefully, we’ll get more in Volume II). Von Trier is slowly putting together a psychological profile of Joe – including a late, gut wrenching sequence, shot with a different color palette than the rest of the film, involving the slow, painful death of her father.
There are other standout sequences as well – perhaps none better than a 10 minute sequence when Uma Thurman shows up at young Joe’s door, with her three sons in tow, to take a look at the “whoring bed” her husband is leaving her and their children for. It is a sequence that is shocking, painful and funny all at the same time – and Thurman is brilliant in it. She’s basically doing the whole scene by herself, since Joe doesn’t really say anything (she didn’t want her husband to actually leave Thurman), and Thurman’s husband also just sits back and watches as his wife basically goes crazy.
That description of the scene – shocking, painful and funny at the same time – actually describes the movie as a whole fairly well. As mentioned before, Von Trier is nothing if not a blunt writer – you never have to dig very deeply to find the meaning in a Von Trier film, he lays it out clearly at some point in the movie. And Joe’s story certainly is shocking, and at times painful to watch – you want to look away, but cannot. The film though, it must be said, is also quite funny in places – and I think intentionally so. I have a feeling that LaBeouf is going to take a beating in some quarters for his performance in this movie – particularly his accent, which like Jodie Foster’s in Elysium or Sharlto Copley’s in Oldboy is one of those “what the hell was that supposed to be” accents (which, could also be said of Slater’s for that matter). I think the movie is supposed to be set in London – although as is often the case with Von Trier, the geography is vague. But everyone else seems to be speaking with a British accent – but LaBeouf’s accent is something altogether unique. His Jerome is an idiot to be sure – a coarse, boorish one at that – and I found his scenes to be quite funny – and I think they were supposed to be. He’s really the only one of the Joe’s “lovers” that she keeps coming back to again and again – no matter who stupid he is, she cannot help herself. I also couldn’t help but laugh at much of Skarsgard’s performance – particularly when he tries to convince Joe that giving a married man, who is going home to try and impregnate his wife, a blowjob on that train wasn’t a bad thing – and perhaps was just the thing that he needed to get himself going to be able to get the job done, because apparently, if you hold your semen in too long the sperm dies. Seligman may be the first man in her life since her father she doesn’t try to seduce – perhaps because he’s seems so oblivious, it’s doubtful he’d pick up on the hint even if she tried.
While I appreciate the humor in Nymphomaniac, which signals that Von Trier knows how ridiculous his story is – it also makes me worry a little bit about Volume II. A little humor helps, but too much may flip the movie in the wrong direction – one that suggest everything is meaningless, and that his four hour sex film is nothing more than a lark for Von Trier. One of the things that kept me from fully loving Melancholia (which I think is half a masterpiece, and half merely good) is I think that in the back half of that movie, Von Trier is basically saying nothing matters – to care about anyone or anything is pointless, and we should all just allow ourselves to sink into oblivion like Kristen Dunst. Perhaps that is what Von Trier is saying this time again – he has said this is the third part of his “depression” trilogy following Antichrist and Melancholia.
The same can be said of the sex in the film as well – that a little helps, too much could end up hurting. Despite all the pre-release buzz, Nymphomaniac Volume I contains less sex than I thought there would be and while that’s certainly far more than any other film you’re likely to see this year. It’s not tame by any means, but tamer than I expected it to (the hilarious “trailer” for Volume II that plays during the end credits for Volume I suggests that it’s going to get wilder). Graphic sex rarely works in a movie – I think John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus is the exception that proves the rule – so I worry that Von Trier may go overboard in the next Volume, in a way he didn’t in the first two hours.
But all of that is mere speculation. Based on what I’ve seen so far, Nymphomaniac is a fascinating, funny, painful, shocking film with great performances that continues Von Trier’s ever fascinating career. If he sticks the landing, Nymphomaniac could be his masterpiece. If he doesn’t, than all bets are off.