Article By: Dan Clark
Director Lars von Trier has always been equal parts auteur and provocateur. He does not simply push the envelope he looks at the communal line of decency, aggressively leaps over it with a gleeful scorn, and lands in an area where the taboo is transformed into the tired norm. Personally, von Trier’s work has never been something I adored as I find its shock value is dulled by its empty aggression—like that disobedient child who clamors to get your attention by misbehaving.
Simply based on the title of his latest film, Nymphomaniac: Volume One, one could assume von Trier is once again continuing his trope of depicting the incendiary and disturbing. Although that is certainly the case, inside the brazen sultriness was a surprising level of legitimate entertainment. A slight sense of humor provided the ideal counterbalance to von Trier’s notoriously abrasive imagery. Some may argue by softening his blow the overarching impact is muted, however I feel this much-needed levity acts as a necessary reprieve that make Nymphomaniac: Volume One much more than an exercise in the erotic.
For a Lars von Trier this story of is rather straightforward. Stellan Skarsgård plays Seligman a man who literally stumbles upon a woman dirty, beaten, and lying next to death in the middle of an alley. This woman named Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is a self-diagnoses nymphomaniac who refuses to go to the hospital. After Seligman brings her home to tend to Joe’s wounds she begins to tell her life story and how the sensation of sex has consumed her life since her adolescents.
Sexual addiction has been depicted a great deal in film as of late. Where Nymphomaniac differs from a movie like Steve McQueen’s Shame is that it doesn’t completely remove the erotic nature of sex. There is sensationalism placed into many of its depictions. At times, like Joe’s first sexual encounter, romanticism is removed and we are left with a raw and ugly moment that brings the awkwardness of sex to the forefront. It is that ever convoluted line between desire and need that is the defining factor in the way the portrayal is carried out.
Throughout Joe’s story Seligman acts as like an in-movie director’s commentary providing feedback to metaphorical ramifications of what Joe went through. As an avid fisherman he compares Joe’s first search for lust to that of fly fishing and to the behavior of fish in general. Skarsgård also delivers these lines with such an earnestness audible laughs can almost be heard. These moments are so blatantly on point and obvious they come off as rather comical, like a wink to the audience indicating that they are well aware of the audacious territory they are embarking into. Seligman’s fly fishing comparison is one of the many comparisons to nature, which becomes a running motif throughout as von Trier appears fixated on linking human and naturalistic behavior.
As one would expect with von Trier the film is littered with ironically placed imagery to make it a film that is truly his–Joe’s comparison to one of her lovers as a prowling leopard is matched with imagines of both walking in similar strides. While these moments may not have the transfixed beauty of Melancholia, they add a level of entertainment that will keep you engaged.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance is another aspect of the film that is certain to entice. She literally and figuratively puts herself out there for all to behold. Her fixation on sex is multifaceted. On a long train ride she is the prowler as she and her childhood friend compete to see who can sleep with the most men before they reach their destination. Gainsbourg’s eyes become a seducing tool of unyielding power. For an act many men claim ownership of she is often the one in control. There are moments where her vulnerability begins to show. When her lifelong disdain for love shows a hint of weakness her shell begins to crack, as her realization of her lack of control begins to set in. This is no doubt a challenging role and one that Gainsbourg handles with ease.
Nymphomaniac does have its stumbles. For one it offers no solid reasoning for Joe’s overindulgence on sex. Flashbacks to her relationship with her father and their bonding over his love of flora add little to the reasoning or the overall movie. Although, it could be further explored in part two or von Trier stating these actions are natural and require no deep meaning. The biggest stumble comes in the form of Uma Thurman who plays a scornful wife looking to get back at her cheating husband. To say Thurman’s performance as off-putting would be saying it nicely. Her one and only scene goes on for far too long and does nothing but annoy.
The biggest question many will ask about Nymphomaniac: Volume One (besides why is it two volumes) is what makes this movie more than glorified a pornography. There is no doubt this eagerly earns its NC-17 rating, but those sexual actions don’t diminish its artistic craftsmanship. Lars von Trier may be provoking for provoking sake, but he has provoked me enough to continue onto the next volume. Consider me addicted.