Whether you like the man or not, there is no denying that Lars Von Trier is a master at getting the maximum amount of exposure he can for his films. As regrettable and insensitive as his Hitler comments may have been, because of them and the resulting press he got, everyone was well aware that Von Trier had a new film at Cannes that year and that it was named “Melancholia”. If these comments were indeed premeditated (which I do not believe they were), then he should be congratulated for this brilliance in marketing which saw his film suddenly become known to people who normally wouldn’t be interested in his cinema. Von Trier has a habit when describing his new films to either mention the most controversial element of the film or downplay them to their lowest common denominator like when he described “Antichrist”, for example, as just a horror film. History shows that “Antichrist” was that and a whole lot more, so when he expressed interest in making a porn film next after “Melancholia”, which became the resulting “Nymphomaniac”, it makes me wonder why anyone took that comment at face value. He was always going to tackle the subject in a much deeper way than he promoted it, and as far as the film being porn, that couldn’t be further from the truth. So what is “Nymphomaniac” about then? Let’s take a look, shall we?
While returning home after buying some groceries, Seligman notices the bloody and bruised body of a woman lying in an alleyway. The girl is Joe, and after she regains consciousness Seligman offers to take her back to his place which is nearby, so he can clean her up and dress her wounds (Joe refuses his initial offer to be taken to a hospital). Whilst patching Joe up, Seligman questions her on how she found herself in such a state. Joe explains that it is the result of her being a nymphomaniac and for him to fully understand, she would have to tell him her entire life story. Seligman agrees to this, and is soon the audience to Joe’s recount of her life’s erotic experiences from her earliest memories right up to the present.
Before we start, a little background on how this project came to be is needed. “Nymphomaniac” was originally conceived as one film; an epic four to five hour film that was to be sexually explicit to the point that real sex was going to occur on screen. Understanding that such an explicit version would struggle to get released, Von Trier planned to shoot a “clean” version of the film as well that would likely be released around the world. However once shooting began and it became apparent just how long the film was going to be, producers stepped in and made Von Trier cut the film into two “volumes”. Apparently the director was unhappy with this, but had no choice in the matter, as investors wanted a return on their money which they were not going to get with the four hour explicit version. He eventually compromised and he split the film in two, as long as his explicit and longer version was to be released at a later date. The version that I am reviewing is the shorter version and has a running time of 118 minutes (the director’s cut version runs 145 minutes).
Right off the bat, let’s get this out of the way: “Nymphomaniac” is NOT a porn film. While it is true that the film contains sex scenes of an explicit nature, I would argue that these scenes are never titillating and actually serve to explain what is going on in our protagonist’s head at that given moment. They have been shot and edited in such a cold and direct manner which fits the material because Joe herself sees the act of sex as just a function of her addiction. She cannot help herself, she just has to have it to survive.
While the story within “Nymphomaniac” is not a light one, it is immediately noticeable that Von Trier is having fun with the material. In fact, after both the depressing “Antichrist” and “Melancholia”, this is the most fun Von Trier has had in a film for a long time. It is not that he is making light of the story he is telling, rather it is in the way that he is telling his story that his fun and energy becomes so obvious. He splits the screen regularly, superimposes numbers over his images, he juxtaposes images with other images, uses both colour and black and white; Lars is having a good time here. The film is also amusing at certain times, particularly in the deadpan way Joe tells her extreme story and the way Seligman reacts. Joe is convinced that she is a bad person, and as such seems to skew her stories towards the negative, particularly in the way she presents herself. Seligman will have none of it, as he only sees the traits of humanity within her story and even goes so far as to create allusions with her nymphomania with the likes of fly-fishing or the classical music of Bach, in an attempt to prove that her actions are just part of human nature; to an extreme level indeed, but none the less human. This analytical approach to sex and nymphomania is another reason that “Nymphomaniac” should not be labelled as porn. The sex scenes are not of a titillating nature, rather they are truthful representations of the story Joe is telling. One thing that I liked about the conversations between Joe and Seligman is that Joe, even though she thinks herself as a bad person, makes no apologies for who she is and for her actions, and at the same time Seligman makes no judgements. While he may disagree with her perception of her involvement of the events, he never judges her for anything she did, instead he just listens. Some of the things are reprehensible too: sleeping with as many man as she can during a train ride all for a competition with her friend, choosing which men to see again via a dice, and destroying a marriage because of this dice for which she shows no emotion over doing.
The actress playing Joe in the scenes set in the present is Charlotte Gainsbourg, and this is the third consecutive film she has made with Von Trier. She is suitably cold (emotionally speaking) as Joe, as if she is distanced with the story she is telling. She shows little to no emotion whilst talking of her past, but you can feel that this may be a façade and that she could breakdown in the future. There is something behind Gainsbourg’s eyes that seem to confirm this. Newcomer Stacy Martin plays the younger version of Joe, and while she isn’t bad, she doesn’t quite stack up to Gainsbourg’s portrayal. Martin has a number of controversial scenes that are of a sexual nature and she handles these quite well and doesn’t appear to be overwhelmed by them. Where Martin does come unstuck a little bit is when she needs to display genuine emotion particularly during the chapter when she is bedside her father as he lays there waiting to die. She is a little awkward in these scenes and doesn’t naturally impress as you can feel her acting. Speaking of Joe’s father, he is played by Christian Slater, who really surprised me at how good he was and at how sensitive a portrayal he gave. The role is small but he in no way embarrassed himself. The embarrassment of “Nymphomaniac” though is Shia LeBeouf and his performance as Jerome, Joe’s “love” interest. He is an important character in Joe’s life, reoccurring a number of times over the years, but LeBeouf’s performance is too lightweight to showcase this. He makes the character feel small and gives Jerome no gravitas, but worst of all is the fact that LeBeouf constantly slips in and out of his non-descript accent. His casting raised eyebrows at the time, and they seem to be warranted. This leaves me with StellanSkarsgard who plays the role of Seligman and does so brilliantly. He probably gives my favourite performance of the film, mainly because he comes across as a character with no agenda. He is only there to listen to Joe and hear her story. Skarsgard gives the man a stoic presence; he is quiet and comes across as educated but never shows off this intellect in an attempt to belittle anyone else. It appears he genuinely cares but it also seems that he enjoys Joe’s company so it would not be a stretch to determine that Seligman is a lonely man.
From a visual standpoint, “Nymphomaniac” is also very cold and has quite an impersonal feel to it all. Von Trier’s now trademark handheld jerky camerawork is in full effect here, which would normally bother me but I guess I am just used to or expect it from a film from the Danish director. His equally jerky editing style is once again used here, and this is something that still bugs me a bit. I know the point of it is to get to the point quickly but personally I feel it comes across as unprofessional and cheap. As I mentioned above, Von Trier uses a lot of different visual techniques to differentiate certain chapters (the film is told in five chapters), with the biggest departure being the black and white segment which is when Joe keeps a bedside vigil with her father. Unfortunately this segment does not have the same lushness to it that the black and white start to “Antichrist” did.
Overall, “Nymphomaniac: Volume 1” is a hard film to rate on its own. It definitely feels unfinished and the ending of the film is particularly unsatisfying. This is no doubt due to the fact that the film was initially conceived as one film. Personally I think after watching “Volume 2” and thus finishing the film as a whole, will we really be able to see just how good or bad “Volume 1” is, in regards to how it fits in with the rest of the story. That said, “Volume 1” is a very easy watch, the film flies by at a rapid pace, thanks to the interesting characters and the story being told. For a Lars Von Trier film it does feel a little light (we are so used to him taking us to the depths of darkness), but looking at the teaser clips that played during the credits, it seems safe to assume that “Volume 2” is going to be a much darker experience. I look forward to seeing the conclusion to Joe’s story and seeing how she came to be the way she was at the beginning of “Volume 1”.