*F( )RGET AB( )UT SP( )ILERS*
Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) is lonely middle-aged man doing some evening shopping before going home to his sad apartment. On his way home he finds Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying in the cold alley. She looks beat up and bruised. It’s snowing and cold outside. Seligman decides her to bring her to his place to clean her up and make her rest. After some tea and rugelach Joe starts to gain some strength and begins to talk about her life. Joe is a nymphomaniac, a sex addict. Seligman seems to be asexual, but he listens attentively and compares Joe’s tales to music, literature and fly fishing.
From the very beginning Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I (2013) wants to make clear that its moral is grounded and exists outside of any religious context. Yet at the same time religion and religious symbolism are omnipresent figures throughout the story. While it’s difficult to decipher the meaning of all the religious references, the Fibonacci numbers pop up repeatedly and are thus worthy of discussion. In art and especially in music the Fibonacci sequence serves the purpose of elevating the artwork and reach for something that glorifies God and is holy and perfect.
Joe’s character however is far from being an artist or someone that fears and worships God. In a lot of ways she is an anti-Christ figure. It is as if she was cursed by God or nature to be an insatiable sex maniac. In this sense the recurring Fibonacci numbers in her life appear like the sick joke her Creator. The whole film is filled with irony and dark humor. It seems that von Trier views Joe’s sex addiction as something so complex and serious that he can’t simply explain it through straightforward narrative. Instead through the character of Seligman he injects the film with numerous metaphors.
As part of von Trier’s unofficial Depression Trilogy (Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac), it’s easy to see how the film uses the sex addiction to comment on larger existential questions. Nymphomaniac is an incredibly personal film for Lars who struggles with depression, angst and other malaise in his real life. A key scene or chapter that exemplifies this is Chapter 4: Delirium, where young Joe (Stacy Martin) visits her dying father (Christian Slater) in the hospital. For all the pain and affection she feels for him she still can’t stop herself from having sex with random patients staying in the same facility.
One could speculate where Joe’s inability to love comes from, but narrowing it down to mommy or abandonment issues would be trivializing the film. In fact her sex addiction seems like something she’s born with. “I discovered my cunt when I was three years old” Joe remembers. It was always about sex. Joe considers love to be just lust added with jealousy. At one point in the film there’s a glimmer of hope that she may have found someone who she’s in love with, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), but by the end of the film it’s clear that she doesn’t feel anything.
It’s precisely this feeling of emptiness and complete loneliness in the universe that von Trier was able to convey with his apocalyptic masterpiece Melancholia. Unlike the other films in the trilogy this film begins with complete blackness, darkness, nothingness. Joe’s character is unable to fill the void inside her. The sexual imagery is clear: Her orifices are being filled, but her heart remains empty. No matter how hard she tries she can’t feel whole. Something is missing and it’s in her desperate tears that we see that she has no idea what it is. She is completely lost.
For all its charming humor Nymphomaniac is still a bleak and sad film if you think about it long enough. Unlike Antichrist and Melancholia Lars opts for a more naturalistic look. Nymphomaniac is far from glossy. Manuel Alberto Claro, who proved some fantastic skills as a cinematographer on Melancholia, restrains his style for this picture and shoots the film in the most realistic way possible, to the point of almost looking plain. The color palette goes from light brown to white and almost has a documentary feel. The chromatic choices echo the colors of the naked human body, which seems apt.
Nymphomaniac was heavily censored in its theatrical cut. The uncut version is said to contain extended sex scenes of unsimulated sex by professional adult film actors. It should be interesting to see how that will affect the pacing of the film, but certainly the flashbacks and narrative frame will make more sense that way, because with the theatrical cut one has the feeling that the film jumps around too much. In any case, the sex in Nymphomaniac is far from sexy or titillating. It purely serves to tell the story. In some scenes it’s sad, in other scenes it’s disgusting and sometimes you just want to look away.
It’s also refreshing to see some nudity equality. In fact many people were concerned with the fact that the film was about a woman’s sexuality, but from a man’s point of view. Lars von Trier has been accused of being a misogynist many times, however not only are those allegations ridiculous, but they couldn’t be further away from the truth. While Joe is very hard on herself, Seligman tries to reassure her that she is only human. Certainly Lars can’t fully understand women, but his opinion is still interesting, because there’s a lot of his own personality in Joe’s character.
Not only are women in Lars von Trier films allowed to be women, with their own fully developed sexuality, but they’re also allowed to have a complex personality and deep feelings and emotions. It is no over-statement to say that von Trier writes some of the most compelling and fascinating female characters. Certainly, if one didn’t know that the film was directed by a man, we wouldn’t have a lot of the silly “controversies” questioning whether he’s even allowed to discuss certain issues. Another critique is often the setting of von Trier’s films.
It is unclear where Nymphomaniac takes place, but the same could be said for almost any Lars von Trier film. There is no clear country or even historical period even, in most of his films. It’s a world that exists outside of the conventions of time and space. Therefore it’s absolutely ridiculous that people would mention “goofs” or inconsistencies related to that. The worlds Lars creates exist in some abstract Pan-European universe that often shares a lot of the same traits with the real world we know, but is difficult to pin point and locate exactly on a map.
What sets Nymphomanaic apart from previous works, aside from its length, the epic scale and thematic elements, is the editing. The movie is constructed almost as a collage, a scrap book of sorts, where you have all kinds of different film stock being used, but beyond that there’s pictures, drawings, title cards, archive footage, writings and many other stylistic elements integrated with the more standard narrative. All these things combined together are trying to reconstruct Joe’s life, but they’re also there for the viewer to help them understand and lighten the mood when necessary.
Aside from von Trier’s masterful writing and directing, the film stands out for its excellent performances. Notably a lot of Nymphomaniac: Volume I is about young Joe, portrayed splendidly by newcomer Stacy Martin. It is astonishing that she achieves such depth and understanding for a character as rich and demanding as Joe. Charlotte Gainsbourg does an equally amazing job at playing Joe in a different stage of her life, a sort of less naive and more disillusioned person that feels terrible about herself and hopeless when looking at the future.
The supporting cast is just as talented and noteworthy. I’ll just briefly mention those who had a bit more screen time, but everyone was great really. Stellan Skarsgård has to be one of the most underrated actors, because it has to be said that he is able to play such a wast range of characters and emotions and it’s always a joy to see him on screen. Christian Slater gives a fantastic performance as Joe’s dad, it’s undoubtedly one of his best. He has to sell some of the more dramatic and touching moments of the film and you don’t question for one second that he’s a dying man in the hospital.
Sophie Kennedy Clark has a fun role as Joe’s BFF B. She reminds me of a young Kirsten Dunst in The Virgin Suicides. Her role is key and she makes it seem effortless. There’s a fantastic scene where Joe and B. take a train and challenge each other to see who can have sex with more guys on ride and it’s just one of the best scenes of the film, largely because of her. Another fantastic scene involves Uma Thurman, I won’t spoil this one, but she is just amazing and shows a side of her I could have never imagined. It really reminded me what a great actress she is.
Shia LaBeouf plays a surprisingly quiet character for a change, but it seems that every time he was about to descend into his usual over acting Lars was able to cut. The character of Jerôme is integral to the story and Shia’s persona is weirdly fitting to play this slimy, yet strangely seductive man who Joe is inexplicably drawn to. One last thing I’ll mention is that the posters and marketing were kind of misleading, because actors like Udo Kier, Willem Dafoe and Jamie Bell only appear in Nymphomaniac: Volume II.
Overall, even after being split in two and some rough censorship Nymphomaniac: Volume I is a great first act of the story. The second act of the story is still incomplete, but looks to be very promising. At the end of the film there’s a teaser that shows how Joe’s sexual curiosity and dissatisfaction will lead her to try more and more extreme practices. As a standalone Nymphomaniac: Volume I is a superb movie, but if coupled with Nymphomaniac: Volume II I am sure that it will be an even more rewarding experience and certainly the uncut version will be much more pleasurable.
Oh, and that Rammstein track Führe Mich totally kicks ass! Plus, a fun drinking game you play with your friends: Who can spot the most Andrei Tarkovsky references?
9 out of 10