If the Marquis De Sade was reincarnated as a portly, haggard Danish filmmaker, he would take the form of Lars Von Trier. With his sexually charged, thematically polarizing films, the cinematic provocateur rivals the notorious French libertine in terms of brutal pessimism. That being said, one must admire his gusto. In Nymphomaniac Vol. 1, Trier audaciously embraces his sexual preoccupations (not to mention his obvious interest in depictions of female suffering) head on. The results are shattering, horrific and weirdly funny. There may not be any genital mutilation or talking foxes of doom this time around, but one will undoubtedly feel the full force of the director’s fiendish hand. It’s a nasty, borderline misanthropic piece of work, but one that leaves you intrigued and hungry for Vol. 2.
Trier’s most recent plunge into the darkness of human life is primarily concerned with Joe’s story. A masochistic, long-winded, self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, Joe is embodied by Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg as a middle-aged woman and newcomer Stacy Martin in the film’s extensive flashbacks. The film begins with the blasting tumult of Rammstein’s “Fuhre Mich,” and the image of Joe lying crumpled on the hard pavement of a deserted alleyway. Her rescuer proves to be a disconcerting Stellan Skarsgard, who kindly takes her back to his dismal flat and allows her the chance to recuperate in his bed. There, Joe begins to tell him her lurid life story, a tale that is frequently and frustratingly disrupted by Skarsgard’s character – who apparently can see everything as having a connection to fishing.
In watching a Lars Von Trier film, one is faced with the (sometimes daunting) task of seeing beneath all the viscera (emotional and physical) on-screen. Nymphomaniac is no different in this regard. The tale that Joe tells is erotic to some extent but also deeply, deeply depressing, focusing on humanity’s existential void. She traces her entire development during the story, beginning with her childhood where we witness the formative effects of her mother (an underused Connie Nielsen) and her father, played by Christian Slater (who is standing the test of time). After things move forward in time, the remainder of the film is largely devoted to Stacy Martin’s Young Joe, who commands the screen in a powerfully uncomfortable performance. Her Joe is a blank slate, an empty vessel, or, as Patrick Bateman once put it, she’s “simply not there.”
Trier depicts Young Joe’s (in addition to other characters) thought process in a bizarre and whimsical fashion. There are a copious number of inserts littered throughout the film, in addition to numbers and shapes that appear on various frames (which correspond to statements characters are making or actions they are performing). Surprisingly, these techniques don’t become overbearing, although one does wonder what purpose they serve aside from breaking up some of the more dour scenes.
This somewhat disarming silliness is also found in several of the film’s performances. Skarsgard, for example, who has been slumming it for a while now in the Marvel Universe, captures Trier’s strange, comedic vibe perfectly. His work may not exactly be what one would call a “good” performance. In fact, his interjections into the flow of Older Joe’s story prove to be somewhat tiresome, even detrimental to the film’s pacing. Still, his character’s continual stream of shit-eating grins, fly fishing references, and especially the unblinking, unfazed way he listens to the ghoulish details of Joe’s tale are genuinely funny. Not to be outdone, Uma Thurman pops up about halfway through the proceedings as the scorned wife of one of Young Joe’s sexual conquests. Shrieking like a banshee, sprouting off outrageous lines (“Would it be alright if I showed the children the whoring bed.”) and dragging her three small boys, Thurman’s character is so profoundly over the top it’s mind-boggling. Amazingly though it all works. Thurman’s scene (which is relatively brief), had it appeared in any other film, would’ve come off as undoubtedly more negative, even embarrassing due to its bombastic and unrealistic acting and writing. However, here it doesn’t really detract from the overall production. She is this film’s talking fox.
This is not to suggest that Trier doesn’t take the subject matter seriously – far from it. Some sequences are deadly serious and quite emotionally affecting. One such scene concerns Martin’s Young Joe and Slater’s “Joe’s father.” Shot in black and white, this sequence forms the crux of the movie’s ideas regarding its heroine and sex in general. Agonizing in its presentation, with monochromatic tones and disorienting changes in focus, and featuring sublime work from Martin and Slater, this scene insinuates powerfully the connection between sex and death. This theme is reenforced in other moments during the film where Martin’s face (mid-coitus) takes on the distressing look of a corpse.
Not everything about Nymphomaniac works mind you. One of the major plot points in the story revolves around Joe’s search for love. This facet of Nymphomaniac is embodied in the character of Jerome – played by Shia LaBeouf. Now, although the actor’s recent personal antics somewhat overshadow his performance, his work in the film is largely strong (although his accent is occasionally dubious). The problem arises through the writing of Trier, which places LaBeouf’s Jerome as the central object of Joe’s desire yet doesn’t differentiate him from her other lovers. The character also disappears for a massive section of the film, only reappearing in an implausible moment near the story’s conclusion.
This implausibility is commented on by Skarsgard’s character, to which Joe responds by saying he’ll enjoy her story more if he just goes with it. To some degree that statement indicates the mindset one should adopt when approaching the film itself. It’s a story that swings between gritty reality and bombastic silliness, between the erotic and the horrific. Not all of it works, but when it does it represents yet another powerful, Trierian plunge into the heart of darkness.