Beyond this warning, there is language, images, and content that deal with mature themes and may offend some viewers. Reader discretion is advised.
It astonishes me, and I guess it’s quite comical…rather depressing actually when you think about it, that we as a species have come all this way, evolved and conquered, created technological wonders, been to the outer reaches of our solar system and back, just to continue masking our stimulation and excitement in social predicaments with excessive, uncomfortable, unwarranted laughter, brash throat-clearing, peculiar postures and odd hand placements, simply due to the fact that, for some reason, we are ashamed of this extremely common reflex. I bring this up because the audience behaved and reacted in such a way while we watched Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” and it got me a little infuriated…but also because the film itself somewhat illuminates this restraint put on our most primal, primitive instinct by humanities non-sensical self-embarrassment, but I digress. It baffles me is all.
Just by glancing at Lars Von Trier’s latest film’s title, “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” one is fairly sound in deducing the kind of premise, content, and imagery to be expected. You know, the kind of unflinching, raw material that can make even the most indifferent, cold-blooded being blush. I mean, what else should one anticipate from the master of honesty and controversy? With a title like “Nymphomaniac,” you can bank on Trier presenting a lot of skin, sex, and depravity for the whole family to enjoy.
We follow Joe, played by the magnificent, fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg, who essentially will comply with any role Trier requests. Joe is found by Seligman, who is brought to life by the incomparable, tragically underrated Trier vet Stellan Skarsgard in a dark, filthy alleyway. Beaten and bloody, Seligman takes pity on Joe and helps with her recuperation in his guest bedroom. Right before heading to sleep, Joe begins to recount her life as a sex addict to Seligman over a cup of tea, who has found an entertaining correlation between Joe’s nymphomania and his hobby, fly-fishing. Never skipping the slightest, most deplorable details, Joe and Seligman begin to bond over Joe’s childhood discovery of her genitals, her prepubescent expeditions into losing her virginity, and the endless stream of sexual partners Joe encountered between young-adulthood and maturity.
Now, a few might laugh, confused at the connection between fly fishing and sex addiction made in “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” regardless of having seen the film or not. Apart from the similar technical aspects of the two conveyed in the film, there is much more to discover depending on your vantage point. I find that the triviality, unthreatening, common humanity of fly fishing somewhat mocks the depravity and selfishness of a nymphomaniac. Nevertheless, the similarities and comparisons are intriguing to say the least.
You’ve heard me deem Trier’s work and the man himself as controversial, and I doubt many of you will fight me on that. That being said, why “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” is considered to be controversial and shocking is beyond me. I mean, if you’re a mid to late teen or older, you should know what sex is and how it is carried out. Younger than that and you shouldn’t even be witnessing this film. What’s shocking is the emotions, logic, morals, and inhumanity of a nymphomaniac on display here, not the sex being depicted uncensored. We see and experience sex all the time through advertisements, a lover, on TV, in film, and so on.
There isn’t exactly a lot going on cinematically in “Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” however keep in mind that this is entirely intentional. What I’m driving at is that this film is not meant to be overly complex, it’s not here to stun you visually, or twist your brain plot-wise. It’s a story about a woman’s life, her experiences, tribulations, and side effects with the condition known as nymphomania. That being said, there is a lot to explore here, such as the continuous demolishing of the fourth wall and an abundance of visceral poignancy. Trier utilizes cut-aways to a fascinating, almost non-relevant extent and dialogue that is handsomely soliloquy-esque. Trier manages to stuff an absurd amount of painful honesty, indecisive vulnerability, and disingenuous heartlessness into the film’s two-hour runtime, like a ballon teetering on popping, it’s quite stunning.
By the time the tale is said and done, flashbacks and all, what’s current ends up taking a backseat to the recollection. As previously mentioned, Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, the teller of the story, newcomer Stacy Martin tackles young Joe, a much more demanding role. Nevertheless, Gainsbourg’s take on a worn, lifeless piece of meat is hauntingly depressing. Never has a woman appeared so worthless, a true achievement Gainsbourg can toss on her resume. As for Martin, she’s completely naked for a good chunk of the film, a seemingly disadvantageous predicament from the start as the viewer can’t help but be pried away from her performance by the nudity. Surprisingly however, Martin manages to control the screen with a cold, cosmically ghastly set of eyes that scream with a vast emotional spectrum. Being an attractive young woman, Martin does a phenomenal job making sex unappealing.
As for Stellan Skarsgard, well, you get what you pay for. A talented, captivating acting veteran who’s indifference and calmness is an excellent grounding agent to the obscenity throughout the film, a much needed facet. Shia LaBeouf, everyone’s favourite punching bag, gives it his all this go around. Maybe now the naysayers will see what a true talent this guy is. Put hatred aside, LaBeouf can act, there’s no way around it, and I’ve been saying it for a good long while. If he can just tighten up his act and reach a state of constant maturity, he’ll undoubtedly be a star in the long run and “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” will be an early calling card we’ll all look back on.
While undoubtedly not for everyone, “Nymphomaniac: Volume I” is a polarizing look at the terrifying world of sex addiction and no self-respect. It’ll earn its fair share of enemies, but you do have to admire the compassionate, unflinching, seductive power of Lars Von Trier’s latest expressionistic piece. It’s sure to grab comparisons to Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” which also explores sex addiction, but in a much more artistic manner. Granted, McQueen’s piece arguably trumps Trier’s in the extreme sense, but Trier’s film is, without question, much more difficult to stomach as a whole. Whether or not that’s a positive or negative is up to you…
Nymphomaniac: Volume 1: 8 out of 10.