Mar 7, 2014

Review: "Nymphomaniac: Volume 1" is a Twisted, Funny, and Profound Evaluation of Sexual Behavior

Left to right: Stacy Martin and Uma Thurman
It is a film that has been controversial from the get-go thanks largely to the provocateur that is director Lars von Trier, whose work has pushed boundaries and delved into the perverse darkness of humanity. Even the name of his four hour sexual epic Nymphomaniac conjures up a sense of explicitness that not even the erotic press materials could hide. All in all, this is as dark and twisted as a von Trier film is supposed to be, but not in the ways that one would expect. In Volume 1 of this two part release, the film that shatters the taboos of sex doesn't do it with its vivid nudity and penetration, but with conversations about fly fishing and mathematical equations. If that sounds strange, it is because of the genius behind making sexual activities sound as natural as possible.
The story follows Joe (Charlotte Gainsborough), who has been beaten up and tossed into an alleyway. Nobody knows how she got there, lying bruised as a song by Rammstein plays over the dreary scenery. It is immediately striking and juxtaposes a sense of discomfort that sets the mood for the rest of the tale. When Seligam (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, he gives her shelter and partakes in the elaborate, 50 year story of how Joe became a nymphomaniac. Serving a pseudo-therapist, he shares parallels to mundane things unfamiliar to typical sexuality such as fly fishing and math. Add in occasional stock footage correlating to dialogue and the film takes on a weird, subversive approach that is tangential, implicitly cheeky, and highly stylized.
Volume 1 largely focuses on Joe's earlier years (played by Stacy Martin), in which she gives blow jobs to people on trains and finds pleasure in it. There's the love interest at the center: Jerome (Shia LeBouf), who is somewhat of a prick and only begins a downward spiral of obsession, hurtfulness, and even neglect. Splicing in footage from the present, a modern Joe discusses the events with a frank sense of vulnerability and naivety. She talks about abusing her sexual prowess and doing things at inappropriate times. There are occasional visual accompaniments, but the film is more interested in providing a psychological evaluation.
What makes Volume 1 so effective is not only the stylistic approach that features various camera lenses and a weird use of "Born to Be Wild," but the characters. Even among the prudish Seligam, he is open to the conversation. The sex is explored more as an addiction than a damnation. Through the conversations, we understand how Joe came to be the sexual being that she is. There's even a broader discussion of how one becomes like this, which turns the film effectively into a broad thesis that suggests that sex is human. It is how we cope with situations and grasp reality. Sex can be seen as shameful, but not to Joe. She needs to experience the thrills and feel alive.
The film's largest success comes thanks to Stacy Martin, who dominates the film as Young Joe. Willing to expose herself and go along for sexual thrills, she brings a brave and thrilling debut performance that manages to capture frivolity and vulnerability through naturalism. She has an erotic sensibility, but never does she feel submissive or out of control. The sex is first and foremost for her and the pleasure reams from her face with joy. This is the naive portion of the tale before she evolves into Charlotte Gainsborough, which looks to be darker and depressing. Most of all, she isn't damned for her actions. While there are consequences, including a riveting scene involving Mrs. H (Uma Thurman) and a "whoring bed," they are more based around relationships.

Left to right: Charlotte Gainsborough and Stellan Skarsgard
The film's thesis, if there is one, that the best kind of sex is based around love. Jerome is supposed to be this love interest who comes early on and remains a presence sporadically in Joe's life. Shia LeBouf brings a jerky charm to him as he is called upon to be neglectful and even abusive. He is the true love that doesn't truly love Joe back. It drives her obsession, especially as Volume 1 comes to a close and involves the strangest, most perverse use of sex in a film in recent years. It isn't that the action is strange, but the motivations. The film suggests that elements in real life drive behavior into certain grey areas. For that, the film manages to become an engrossing journey not into sex, but an actual addict who instead of drinking or doing drugs, copes sexually.
If the film has one flaw, it is that it is only Volume 1. As a whole, this feels like a slow moving, highly intellectual, stylized first act that is full of perverse joy and creativity that makes the whole experience fun. While the imagery will likely be too vivid for some people, the film feels more like an explicit therapy session. It presents its topic and delivers it, thankfully with Stacy Martin turning in an unflinching, memorable performance. It does leave questions on where things will go. While the very idea of splitting a four hour film into two parts makes sense, there are questions that don't feel answered. Much like stopping a film after the second act plot twist, there is a sense of desperation.
Maybe it serves as a way to think about what's to come. Maybe it is a subliminal way to feel "addicted" to Nymphomaniac and want more. The film is a gloriously open tale that may at times feel scattered in execution, but that isn't necessarily a problem. It is ambitious, strange, and features a filmmaker with a clear message that he wanted to share. The fact that after two hours and some graphic sex that there is a desperation for Volume 2, it proves that the film is doing something right. What Lars von Trier has created is another magnum opus that proves that his craft matches his large ego. In fact, the idea that Nymphomaniac was a film that he wanted to make at all is a gutsy move. So far, it is paying off nicely.

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